Landmark FCC Decision Is A Victory For Freedom Of Expression And Free Enterprise

In what PoltiFact calls ” a significant accomplishment for Obama” and a “Promise Kept,” the FCC has voted for major changes to help guarantee a free and open Internet. Net neutrality is important for freedom of expression, including helping small blogs such as this to continue, important for small business, and important to maintain the lifestyle we are becoming accustomed to, such as streaming video as an alternative to often exorbitant cable rates.

Net neutrality is a tremendous victory for freedom of expression and free enterprise. Not surprisingly, conservatives have been spreading the untrue talking points of the large telecommunications companies which fear seeing their power diminished. Whenever the goals of the powerful conflict with the best interests of the nation, we know which side conservatives will invariably side with.

There are all sorts of false claims being spread by conservatives about net neutrality, such as that it will lead to $15 billion in new taxes and will lead to either Barack Obama or the United Nations (depending upon the source) controlling the Internet. In other words, this sounds like lots of right wing conspiracy theories we have already heard.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler disputed conservative claims that the new regulations are intended to regulate communication on the Internet:

This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers telling them what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.

The Fact Checker at The Washington Post called the claims of higher taxes false. Ron Wyden, who wrote the Internet Tax Freedom Act, debunked conservative claims that the FCC’s action would invalidate the law and result in higher taxes. This ban on taxes in will expire in October, but there is nothing stopping Congress from renewing it.

AP’s fact checking included the following:

THE CLAIM: “President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet.” — Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

THE FACTS: It’s a shift for sure, but the FCC hasn’t proposed regulating Internet content or controlling access to websites. The question is how to regulate Internet service so providers don’t block or slow web traffic for financial gain.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the only way to do that is to subject retail Internet service to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. That would expand FCC power significantly by allowing regulators to step in if there were allegations of harm to consumers. But it’s a reach to suggest that these new powers equate to a government takeover.

Also worth noting is that the FCC is independent from the administration. While Obama has put pressure on the FCC to enact tougher regulations, and he appointed Wheeler to head the agency, this is not the president’s call.

After debunking additional claims, the article explained why this change is now needed, and not necessarily a break from previous administrations:

THE CLAIM: The FCC plan “represents a stunning reversal of the policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.” It will backtrack on “decades of bipartisan agreement to limit Internet regulation.” — Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.

THE FACTS: The question of Internet “fast lanes” is far more pressing for Obama than it ever was for Clinton or Bush. In 2000, only 3 percent of American households had broadband access, compared with 70 percent by 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

It wasn’t until President George W. Bush’s second term, in 2005, that YouTube became available and video services like Netflix became more popular. By the time the FCC voted in 2008 against Comcast for throttling Web traffic, Bush was nearing the end of his presidency.

For those who might find this all boring, here is a more entertaining explanation of net neutrality from John Oliver:

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Bloomberg News Shows That Obamacare Is Not A Job-Killer As Republicans Claim

I’ve discussed many times, most recently yesterday, how the conservative arguments against the Affordable Care Act don’t hold up. Their predictions of doom have also consistently failed to come about. Bloomberg News looked at the effect of Obamacare on corporate profits, finding only a small effect, debunking the conservative claims that Obamacare is a job killer. It also helps that one of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act has a lower increase in premiums than has been seen in the past:

The biggest entitlement legislation in a generation is causing barely a ripple in corporate America.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as Obamacare — is putting such a small dent in the profits of U.S. companies that many refer to its impact as “not material” or “not significant,” according to a Bloomberg review of conference-call transcripts and interviews with major U.S. employers.

That’s even after a provision went into effect this year requiring companies with 50 or more full-time workers to provide coverage, and after more workers are choosing to enroll in existing company coverage because of another requirement that all Americans get insured.

“It’s just part of doing business,” said Bob Shearer, chief financial officer of VF Corp., which owns the North Face and Vans apparel brands. “Obamacare has added costs, but not so much that we felt we had to talk about it specifically.”

The collective shrug from the nation’s biggest employers undermines the arguments of Republicans, who call the law a job-killer as they seek its repeal.

While U.S. health-care costs continued to rise faster than inflation in the five years since the law was passed, their rate of growth has slowed. Employers spent an average of $11,204 per worker for health benefits in 2014, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, according to Mercer LLC. That growth rate was 6.1 percent or more each year from 1998 to 2011.

Enrollment in insurance policies purchased on the exchanges has also beaten expectations. The Hill reports, “The administration announced on Tuesday that 11.4 million people had signed up ahead of Sunday’s deadline, a figure that puts the administration on track to beat its goal of 9.1 million enrollees. Republicans have been largely silent on the numbers.”

Taken together, these two reports are further evidence that the Affordable Care Act is helping to both increase the number of people insured and restrain health care costs.

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Measles Outbreak Shows How Republicans Have A Serious Problem With Science And Facts

Statements from many prominent Republicans, including Chris Christie and Rand Paul, on the measles outbreak have served to remind people that Republicans really are the Party of Stupid. This follows recent problems with Republicans ignoring the science to promote hysteria in response to Ebola.  As The New York Times wrote:

The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives.

It is a dance Republican candidates often do when they hedge their answers about whether evolution should be taught in schools. It is what makes the fight over global warming such a liability for their party, and what led last year to a widely criticized response to the Ebola scare.

As concern spread about an Ebola outbreak in the United States, physicians criticized Republican lawmakers — including Mr. Christie — who called for strict quarantines of people who may have been exposed to the virus. In some cases, Republicans proposed banning people who had been to the hardest-hit West African countries from entering the United States, even though public health officials warned that would only make it more difficult to stop Ebola’s spread.

On climate change, the party has struggled with how to position itself, with some Republicans inviting mockery for questioning the established science that human activity is contributing to rising temperatures and sea levels.

There are two types of misinformation being spread by conservatives regarding vaccines. The most extreme is to deny the basic science, claiming that vaccines do not work or are harmful. Some limit their arguments to denying the public health dangers resulting when some people refuse to vaccinate their children, often on libertarian grounds. While herd immunity has generally protected Americans from the effects of some refusing vaccines, the current measles outbreak shows what can happen. This also highlights a major problem with libertarianism. Sometimes, as even Fox’s Megyn Kelly has argued, “some things do require some involvement of Big Brother.”

It is also hard for Chris Christie to hide behind any libertarian justification for allowing parents to refuse to vaccinate their children after he involuntarily quarantined nurse Kaci Hickox despite the lack of either legal or medical justification.

It does make it much worse for the Republicans when they show similar problems with science and facts on other issues, not limited to evolution, climate change, vaccines, and Ebola. As I discussed yesterday, Republicans are also basing their attempts to restrict abortion rights on pseudo-science, such as claiming that a fetus can feel pain before it has developed a cerebral cortex, and framing the debate around unscientific claims that there is a definite point when life begins.

While economics is not as exact a science, there is ample data which disputes Republican Voodoo Economics. Tax cuts on the wealthy do not pay for themselves, do not stimulate the economy, and do not lead to wealth trickling down. The multiplier effect of government spending on economic development, along with the benefits of giving tax breaks to the poor and middle class, as opposed to the wealthy, often provide far greater benefit. These are among the reasons that the economy does so much better under Democrats than Republicans.

We are still seeing the disastrous effects of Republicans ignoring the facts in Iraq to go to war.

Facts matter, and Republican denial of the facts do not change this. What does happen is that we all suffer when Republicans decide public policy while denying science and facts.

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Republicans Plan To Impose Huge Tax Increase On Middle Class In Opposing Obamacare Fix

Republicans are increasingly seeing King v. Burwell as a way to do what they couldn’t accomplish in over fifty votes–repeal the Affordable Care Act. While it defies logic, the Supreme Court could conceivably rule that the Affordable Care Act only provides subsidies for plans purchased on state exchanges but not on the federal exchange.

A majority of people want Congress to pass a simple legislative fix should this occur, guaranteeing a continuation of the subsidies for those who purchase plans over the federal exchange. The health care and insurance industries also support such a fix.

This does not mean that the Republican Party will take the rational path. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Congressional Republicans say they won’t move to preserve consumers’ health insurance tax credits if the Supreme Court strikes them down, raising the stakes in the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act…

Leaders in the GOP-controlled House and Senate see the court challenge as their best hope for tearing apart a law they have long opposed. If the court strikes down the subsidies, Democrats are expected to clamor for lawmakers to pass a measure correcting the language in the law to revive them. Congressional Republicans say there is no possibility they would allow that.

“No, no, no, no,” said Sen. Dan Coats (R., Indiana). “Even Democrats have acknowledged that this needs fixing.”

That position would force lawmakers to confront people in as many as 37 states where the federal government is currently running some or all of the exchange where consumers buy plans and tap the tax credits. There are 6.1 million people in those states who have the credits for 2015, according to federal data released this week. The average tax credit this year is $4,330, the Congressional Budget Office said this week.

Eleven of the states where the federal government has a hand in running the insurance exchange – including seven with Republican governors – signed onto a brief submitted late Wednesday asking the Supreme Court to uphold their tax credits. The brief said the loss of the credits “would deprive millions of low-and moderate-income Americans of billions of dollars in federal premium assistance essential to buy health insurance, thereby disrupting state insurance markets throughout the United States.”

The brief was filed by a group of mostly Democratic attorneys general. The lone Republican, North Dakota’s Wayne Stenehjem, declined to comment…

Nobody in the Senate Republican caucus has said the party should tweak the law so it can continue as it is, particularly since such a move would preserve the unpopular requirement for people to buy coverage or pay a fine, said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Republicans are also increasingly preparing to use the budget procedural tactic known as reconciliation to repeal large parts of the law and potentially enact alternative provisions after the court ruling, whatever the outcome. The reconciliation process allows party leaders to pass changes with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes most bills need to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate.

A loss of the subsidies would amount to a tax increase on the middle class. Republicans tend to concentrate on lowering taxes for the wealthy, at the expense of the middle class, and therefore see no problem in this. They mistakenly believe this will not affect their more affluent supporters, who do not qualify for the subsidies. What they fail to realize is that reducing the number of people in the risk pool will result in higher premiums for everyone.

Republicans are again talking about proposing their own plan, but they have repeatedly failed at doing so. The last time the Republicans did propose a plan it was remarkably similar to Obamacare, except then it was proposed as the conservative alternative to Hillarycare.

Any Republican plan which avoids harming millions of people will not only have to provide a mechanism for assisting those who cannot afford insurance coverage. Any plan must also ensure that insurance companies could not return to denying coverage to those who have medical problems. Republicans will find that this is not so simple, and will require the type of compromises seen in the Affordable Care Act.

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Kaiser Health Tracking Poll Shows Most Support Fix For Subsidies Under Affordable Care Act

While you can never be certain as to what the Supreme Court would do, I’ve always felt that it is most likely that they would ultimately find that King v. Burwell is a frivolous case. (In other words, the most conservative justices might accept it, but John Roberts will cast the deciding vote against it if needed). This case is the latest Republican attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the courts because of some language in the law, contradicting other portions, which could be taken to mean that subsidies are only available to those who obtain coverage through state exchanges, and not the federal exchange.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, it would politically be bad for Republicans if the court ruled against the Obama administration in this case. If the Supreme Court does accept the absurd argument that subsidies should only be available under the law for policies purchased on state exchanges, the simplest solution would be for Congress to revise a few words in the law to fix the problem. It is rather common for Congress to pass laws after major legislation to fix minor problems, except in this case Republicans in Congress are more interested in repeated, futile efforts to repeal ObamaCare as opposed to making such fixes–with yet another repeal vote now planned.

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll for January finds that relatively few people are now aware of King v. Burwell, but most people do think that Congress should fix the problem. Among total voters, passing a law to fix this is supported 64 percent to 27 percent. There is similar support among independents, greater support among Democrats, and even a substantial number of Republicans (40 percent) would support such a fix:

King v Burell

If this is not fixed by Congress passing such a law, the second solution would be for states to start their own exchanges. A majority would also support this in affected states. Even Republicans support this, although at lower levels than Democrats and independents:

King v Burell2

I suspect that Republican leaders would much prefer to see the Supreme Court not put them in a position to have to take such action, either in Congress or at a state level. Failure to take such action would make displease the majority of voters, while taking such action would displease their base, who might take revenge in primaries where they dominate.

Update: Hospitals and insurance companies also lose if the subsidies are not continued, and are therefore also defending the subsidies before the Supreme Court.

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CBO Shows ObamaCare Costing Less Than Projected–Ignore Conservative Attempts To Distort The Data

There was more good news from the Congressional Budget Office today regarding the Affordable Care Act. The latest’s estimates significantly reduce the costs of expanding medical care under the law:

 The Congressional Budget Office on Monday significantly lowered its estimate of the cost of providing health insurance coverage to millions of Americans under the Affordable Care Act.

Douglas W. Elmendorf, the director of the budget office, said the changes resulted from many factors, including a general “slowdown in the growth of health care costs” and lower projections of insurance premiums that are subsidized by the federal government.

In March 2010, when President Obama signed the health care law, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the expansion of coverage would cost the federal government $710 billion in the fiscal years 2015 through 2019, Mr. Elmendorf said.

“The newest projections indicate that those provisions will cost $571 billion over that same period, a reduction of 20 percent,” he said. The Affordable Care Act not only subsidized the purchase of private insurance, but also authorized a major expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people.

As usual, conservatives are cherry picking and distorting the numbers to portray this as a negative. Among other distortions of the facts, they fail to take into account the fact that having a substantial portion of the country be uninsured results in higher costs for both government programs, as well as costs which are passed on to those who do pay for insurance. The bottom line is that, even before these more favorable numbers, the CBO found that the Affordable Care Act results in a reduction in the deficit. Strange that conservatives who place such a high priority on reducing the deficit (which was run up by Republicans during the Bush years) oppose a program which will help reduce the deficit.

Of course if conservatives are unhappy with the cost of the Affordable Care Act, they should keep in mind the fact that costs are much higher due than they otherwise might be due to providing coverage through private insurance companies rather than through a single-payer system modeled on Medicare. Somehow I doubt many conservatives would go for the far more cost effective single-payer model.

Conservatives are also attacking the law because, while reducing the number of uninsured by 27 million people, there will still be 31 million uninsured in 2025. However, when looking at who will remain uninsured, I wonder which group conservatives are complaining about. Of this 31 million, 30 percent are illegal aliens and conservatives would sure protest if health care coverage were extended to them. Another 1o percent are ineligible for coverage because of living in states which did not expand Medicaid–a decision which conservatives support. The remainder are people who will qualify for coverage but choose not to purchase it.

The number of uninsured might fall as more red states go along with the expanded Medicaid program. It was just announced that Indiana is the latest to offer the expanded Medicaid program.

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Conservative Argues That It Is Not A Bad Thing If People Die Due To Repealing Obamacare

If the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed, as most Republicans are calling for, we would see millions of Americans lose their insurance. We would return to past problems, including people being denied insurance when they have medical problems, people once again being forced to declare bankruptcy due to medical costs, and we would see many more deaths than we will otherwise see.  Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute has an op-ed in The Washington Post under the headline, End Obamacare, and people could die. That’s okay.

Note again that the author is from the American Enterprise Institute and this is published in The Washington Post. This is not just some isolated blogger or conservative shouting out their personal opinion.

Strain’s logic is that “We make such trade-offs all the time.” For example, “Consider, for example, speed limits. By allowing people to drive their cars at speeds at which collisions result in death, our government has decided that the socially optimal number of traffic fatalities is not zero.”

He has other such examples, but they do not apply to the type of trade-off he is advocating. There are good reasons for having a society in which people can drive, and it is an unavoidable fact that this will lead to a certain number of traffic fatalities. The types of trade offs he discussed are not analogous to taking away health care coverage.

While there are reasons for having a society in which people can drive, despite traffic fatalities,  there is no good reason for either having people uninsured or for a system in which insurance companies are allowed to profit by denying coverage to those who become sick.

Strain argues that, “In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals.” This falsely assumes that health care coverage is something which we cannot afford to provide. However every other industrialized nation on the planet, existing in the same “world of scarce resources,” is able to provide health care coverage to its citizens. The Affordable Care Act is a valuable step in the right direction, but it is an incremental step which still falls short of what is provided in the rest of the industrialized world.

There is no good reason why the United States cannot provide the same level of health care coverage as is seen in the rest of the industrialized world. One reason why we have been unable to do this is the unnecessary middleman–private insurance companies making huge profits while making health care more expensive than elsewhere. Perhaps the answer is that in a world of scarce resources, a system of private insurance is an unacceptable price to pay, and we should be thinking in terms of conversion to a far more cost-effective single payer system.

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Senate Republicans Agree Climate Change Is Real But Continue To Deny Cause

Climate-vote

With Republicans controlling the Senate, Democrats are largely limited to symbolic votes. Democrats wanted to attach an amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline bill which would get Republicans on record with regards to climate change. There was little difficulty in passing an amendment agreeing that climate change is real, and not a hoax. Only one Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, voted no. The catch is that, while they agreed that the climate is changing (a fact which some conservatives do deny), they do not accept the view of 97 percent of climate scientists that human action is the cause.

Senator Brian Schatz introduced a stronger amendment: “To express the sense of the Senate that climate change is real; and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Under the rules of the Senate, this amendment failed with a 50-49 majority. Most Republicans voted against it, but there were a handful of exceptions–full list here.

I’m not sure what all this proved, but next could we have a vote to determine which Republicans don’t believe in evolution, or that the earth is not flat?

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Will The State Of The Union Address Matter After This Week?

Obama SOTU

I certainly liked Obama’s State of the Union Address while listening to it. In a room dominated by Republicans, Obama was once again the adult in the room–the sensible one interested in governing and not bogged down in extremist ideology. His economic numbers provided real evidence of success, despite Republican obstructionism, and Obama was right in addressing the need to extend the benefits of economic recovery to more in the middle class.

The question is whether the speech, and Obama’s aggressiveness on policy matters, will make a difference matters beyond this week. David Corn summed up some of my concerns:

Barack Obama is very good at getting elected president (two for two!) and pretty darn good at policy (Obamacare; the stimulus; the auto industry rescue; Wall Street reform; ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Cuba; immigration reform executive action; dumping DOMA; middle-class tax cuts; new EPA limits on emissions that cause climate change; banning torture; downsizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and killing Osama bin Laden). But there’s one key piece of the job description where he’s fallen short: shaping the ongoing political narrative of the nation.

The president is the country’s storyteller in chief. And despite his inspiring powers of oratory (see Campaign 2008) and his savvy understanding of the importance of values in political salesmanship (see Campaign 2012), Obama, as his aides concede, has not effectively sold the nation on his own accomplishments, and, simultaneously, he has failed to establish an overarching public plot line that explains the gridlock in Washington as the result of GOP obstructionists blocking him on important issues where public opinion is in his favor. With his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Obama had one last chance to take a swing at forging this narrative. Though he did adopt a muscular stance in presenting a forceful and vigorous vision—going on offense in the fourth quarter of his presidency, as his advisers have put it—the president let the Republicans off easy.

Throughout his presidency, as the GOP has consistently sought to block him, Obama has responded inconsistently. He often has pleaded for reason and looked to craft a deal—frequently (and justifiably) to prevent a hit to the economy. (This was the adult-in-the-room strategy.) At times, he has praised House Speaker John Boehner, while pointing to Boehner’s tea party wing as the cause of the partisan paralysis. And then he has occasionally—but not too often—flashed anger and slammed Republicans for being irresponsible and reckless (the debt ceiling scuffle, the assorted government shutdown showdowns). He has not presented a steady and stark tale in which he stars as the fighter for the middle- and lower-income Americans who are stymied repeatedly by always-say-no Republicans aligned with plutocrats, the gun lobby, corporate polluters, and other foes of progress. Consequently, he has often borne blame for the sluggish economy and the mess in Washington, with the Democratic Party paying the price for the dips in his approval rating.

For this to have meaning, Obama must stick to pushing his views, and the Democratic Party must be there behind him. The reaction of the Democratic Party has been even more inconsistent than Obama’s. Here’s what I thought during the speech:

Of course the general election is an entirely different ballgame than the midterms, and Democrats who thought there was benefit in running as Republican-lite in a midterm election where the big contests were in the red states might act more boldly. Or maybe not.

On the other hand, maybe we should just be happy that Obama had a good speech, the positive results from his policies are real, and that the speech was well accepted. Beyond that, I’m not sure that a State of the Union address ever really matters all that much.

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Republican Women Revolting Against GOP Rape Ban But For Wrong Reasons

National Journal reports that the some Republicans oppose their party’s planned legislation to attempt to restrict abortion rights, or as Think Progress puts it,Republicans Introduce An Anti-Abortion Bill So Extreme That GOP Women In Congress Are Revolting.

Republican lawmakers are raising concerns that the party will alienate young voters and women by voting for an antiabortion bill coming to the House floor next week, on the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

In a closed-door open-mic session of House Republicans, Rep. Renee Ellmers spoke out against bringing up the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks, telling the conference that she believes the bill will cost the party support among millennials, according to several sources in the room.

“I have urged leadership to reconsider bringing it up next week.… We got into trouble last year, and I think we need to be careful again; we need to be smart about how we’re moving forward,” Ellmers said in an interview. “The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn’t be on an issue where we know that millennials—social issues just aren’t as important [to them].”

I have previously discussed how the twenty-week ban, in addition to being an unacceptable act of government intrusion in the rights of women to control their own body, is based upon conservative pseudo-science. They base it on false claims that the fetus can feel pain at twenty weeks despite this being scientifically impossible prior to the development of the cerebral cortex. This objection from some Republicans, based upon political expediency as opposed to principle, also demonstrates the hypocrisy of Republicans. If something really was morally wrong, as Republicans claim abortion is at twenty weeks, then it would not be justifiable to oppose the ban because of fear of losing votes.

If conservatives really had a case that abortion is morally wrong, then why should such an act be justifiable based upon who the father is? It would not be the fault of the fetus that the mother was raped. The abortion exclusion also shows just some of the difficulties in enforcing any laws against abortion rights. The proposed legislation would only apply if a woman reports the rape to the police, but this imposes unfair obstacles considering how women who report rape are often treated. Are we getting back to the Todd Akin idea of “legitimate rape” with such requirements? On the other hand, if reporting a rape to the police is the requirement for a legal abortion, this would potentially give motivation for women to falsely claim rape, along with causing increased skepticism among some people when women do report rape, further worsening problems for women who are raped.

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