Monthly Archives: October 2013

Appropriate GOP response on exchange: Mission accomplished

The pathetic rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act exchanges was an embarrassment that, if not remedied soon, could jeopardize long-awaited access to health care for millions. There are plenty of people in the Obama administration that deserve blame.
In the midst of the blame game, however, it is worth stepping back for some context.
The first question Alabamians should ask, of course, is why the federal government is running the state’s exchange. In deference to the same states’ rights movement loudly proclaimed by Gov. Robert Bentley during his candidacy and after, the ACA provided states with the authority and funding to set up their own exchanges. Bentley and Alabama legislators declined. They were open about their reason for leaving this critical task to Washington: They hoped that if enough states refused to create exchanges, the burden on the federal government would undermine the law.
It turns out the strategy was clever. The federal government must run the exchanges in 36 states, many of which rejected the responsibility in the hopes of derailing efforts at health-care reform.
Alabama also was one of several states — all Republican-controlled — that filed suit seeking to have the ACA ruled unconstitutional. The ACA became law in March 2010, but it wasn’t until June 2012 that the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. The law was in legal limbo for more than two years. In retrospect the federal government should have been pumping money into development of the exchanges during this period, but at the time the wisdom of doing so was not obvious.
Even after the Supreme Court ruling, the GOP managed to keep the fate of Obamacare an open question. Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential election were unanimous in their determination to do everything in their power to thwart health-care reform, so it wasn’t until the results of the November election — less than a year ago — that federal agencies, contractors and insurance companies began to have confidence that the 2010 law actually would take effect.
When the Department of Health and Human Services sought congressional approval to transfer some of its funds to improve implementation of the ACA, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives shot it down. Republicans also blocked the Obama administration’s efforts to make legislative tweaks to the complex law, the sort of changes that are necessary in any major piece of legislation.
The nation is at the beginning of what will no doubt be endless congressional hearings on what went wrong with the rollout of the federal exchanges. Those hearings will reveal that blame is appropriate. The consequences for those who are to blame should be harsh, because the mistakes have jeopardized the ability of millions of uninsured Americans to obtain access to health care.
In the midst of casting blame, however, Americans should remember that Republicans in Alabama and Washington have spent much of the last 3-1/2 years in an open and determined effort to sabotage Obamacare. They wanted the exchanges to fail. While millions of uninsured Americans have every right to complain, elected Republican officials should limit themselves to two smug words: Mission accomplished.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Obamacare

The cost of misrepresentation

The simplistic model of a representative democracy provides false cover for the U.S. House of Representatives’ complete failure in the recent debacle over a government shutdown and the debt ceiling.

Under that model, it is the job of elected officials to do the bidding of those who elected them. It’s not a model proposed by the Founding Fathers, who developed a representative government in part out of a recognition that the whims of the people sway wildly and often are uninformed. Governance by referendum, they concluded, is no way to have a stable government.

Nonetheless, few will criticize a politician of either party for voting the will of his constituents, even if he questions their wisdom. If a poll indicates the majority of a representative’s constituents oppose Obamacare, they have political cover in waging battle against it. If the majority of voters say they view compromise as weakness, a representative is protected from accusations of brinksmanship.

The problem with this simplistic model of a representative democracy is that it fails to account for the interactive nature of political discourse. Constituents do not just tell their elected official what they want, they rely on the elected official for information. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, is not merely a sponge when he returns to this district, soaking up the wishes of voters. He also is a spigot of information, providing information that his constituents trust.

Like most other elected officials in Alabama, however, Brooks has not been a responsible broker of information. The most obvious example has less to do with substance than procedure.

Brooks, along with U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Tuscaloosa and Mobile, did not merely accede to the wishes of their constituents in casting votes against a bill that ended the government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling. They actively fostered in their constituents the belief that Republicans had enough leverage to undermine Obamacare. It was a claim that most Republicans in Washington found ludicrous. Democrats knew it could not succeed. Nonpartisan political experts realized it was futile. And the truth is that Brooks, Shelby and Sessions also probably knew better.

They have discovered they gain political points with their base by not just accepting the anti-government wishes of their constituents, but by feeding it. If they, as Washington insiders, can not only affirm the fears of voters but push those fears into frenzy, they convince their followers of their ideological purity. Unfortunately, they also lead those followers to adopt falsehoods as fact.

It’s a political game that cost the nation and north Alabama dearly in recent weeks. Despite their rhetoric and their votes, Brooks, Shelby and Sessions were wrong in their claims that the GOP had the leverage to repeal Obamacare. As a result, tens of thousands of Alabamians who rely for their salaries on the federal government were unable to go to work. National parks were closed. People dependent on Headstart and other programs assisting low-income Alabamians suffered. Maybe Alabamians were willing to disrupt their incomes and risk national default on a real chance to repeal Obamacare. What they now realize is they were duped by the demagoguery of politicians they trusted.

Nationally, the shutdown promoted by “fiscal conservatives” cost the nation $24 billion. If the brinksmanship leads to a downgrade in the U.S. bond rating – as remains quite possible – it will cost much more.

The people of Alabama are not irrational, but they depend on the honesty of those they elect to represent them in Congress. Whether the topic is the extent of their political leverage, or the actual provisions of the Affordable Care Act, or the imminent date of the “national bankruptcy” that is Brooks’ fallback, elected officials need to have the courage to forego talking points and instead provide accurate information to their constituents.

The extent to which Alabamians are an informed electorate depends heavily on the courage of their elected officials to provide honest and complete information. By placing their own political ambitions above the success of the nation and of the Republican Party, many of those elected officials have failed miserably.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Conservatism, Debt ceiling, Obamacare

US House to blame for this mess

As our nation — already struggling through a shutdown — careens toward default, the understandable temptation of Americans is to blame both parties. This is one of those rare cases, however, when only one party is at fault.
The temptation to lay the fiscal crisis at the feet of both parties is understandable because it’s consistent with our history. Gridlock did not begin with the 2010 elections. The dysfunction of Washington D.C. is very much a bipartisan affair.
The GOP-controlled U.S. House, however, owns this mess.
One House-created disaster is in progress. The government shutdown has continued since Oct. 1.
Government shutdowns are not inherently anyone’s fault. The Constitution provides Congress with control over the budget. It also created two chambers of Congress. This is not the first time in U.S. history that those chambers had very different views of what the budget should look like.
Americans might wish that the House and Senate could negotiate with maturity and with a recognition that a shutdown causes massive problems for their constituents, but the Constitution did not provide a tie-breaking mechanism.
This shutdown, however, has nothing to do with the budget. Senate Democrats have formally requested budget talks 19 times in the last six months. They have been rebuffed every time.
House Republicans placed only one restriction on a continuing resolution to fund the government: that the Affordable Care Act be stripped of funding. Congress passed the law almost four years ago. It was the focus of the 2012 presidential election, which President Barack Obama won by 5 million votes, and passed Supreme Court review. It raises some taxes, but it does not increase the deficit.
Tying government funding to the destruction of Obamacare makes no more sense than if the Senate tied passage of a continuing resolution to reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban.
As brutal as the shutdown is — especially in north Alabama with its dependence on federal dollars — the consequences of a failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse. If the Treasury can figure out a way to honor U.S. debts after Thursday, it will only be by gutting Social Security payments, halting federal retirement pay, mass furloughs, disruptions in Medicare and a host of other problems that make a shutdown seem minor. Failure to raise the debt ceiling would shake the world’s confidence in U.S. stability, would necessarily create a U.S. recession, and possibly would cause a global one.
Minority parties routinely gripe about increases in the debt limit. Majority parties — whether Democrat or Republican — always have understood that with power came responsibility.
The 14th Amendment is blunt: “The validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” Many have asked whether the president will invoke the amendment and bypass Congress.
The real question, though, is why the U.S. House does not feel bound either by the Constitution, by America’s hard-earned reputation as a nation that always pays its debts, or by the promises it has made to the people and to the world.

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Filed under Debt ceiling, Obamacare, Partisanship

Shutdown a game of politics

North Alabama depends heavily on Defense Department dollars, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks has been vocal in his complaints that it was the fault of Democrats that thousands of his constituents were on furlough because of the government shutdown. Brooks, R-Huntsville, is voicing support for hard-working Defense Department civilians and defense contractors. The disruption in their paychecks is damaging the north Alabama economy and the nation.

We hope, however, that those on furlough did not miss the irony of Brooks’ complaints.

Brooks is one of about three dozen far-right members of the U.S. House of Representatives that created this mess.

The government shut down for a single reason. A small group of Republicans — a minority of the House — refused to continue even short-term funding of the government without also disabling the Affordable Care Act.

We believe the ACA — which was passed by Congress almost four years ago and is less than three months away from providing insurance to millions of uninsured Americans — is a first step toward essential reforms in a broken health care system. Some think it will be a disaster. Either way, in the hands of Brooks and his most-extreme colleagues, it is nothing but a political football. They have staked their political reputations on the failure of the law known as Obamacare, but they are unwilling to let the reforms play out.

A few House Republicans balanced the political points they could score by taking one more stab at Obamacare and decided it outweighed the potentially devastating consequences to their constituents of a shutdown.

The latest claim by Brooks and his colleagues in districts heavily dependent on the Defense Department was that the furloughs were all President Barack Obama’s fault. He could, they argued, keep Defense Department civilians and defense contractors on the job despite the shutdown.

Their argument was based on the Pay Our Military Act, passed by Congress and signed by the president Sept. 30, on the eve of the shutdown. The two-page act appropriated “such sums as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to the civilian personnel of the Department of Defense (who) are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”

The hastily passed legislation did not explain what sort of “support to members of the Armed Forces” qualified. It provided no guidance on how the Pentagon was supposed to apply it to 400,000 furloughed employees, many of whom have some duties that arguably qualify as “support” and other duties that do not.

Thankfully, the Pentagon on Saturday used the law to order most of its furloughed employees back to work. Brooks, who routinely lambastes Obama for dictatorial overreach, may be all for the expansive use of executive power in interpreting this law. But Obama also must placate 534 other members of Congress — not all in defense-heavy districts — and a judiciary.

The president, thankfully, stretched a last-minute act of Congress to benefit thousands in north Alabama who faced indefinite furloughs.

What is clear, though, is that none of this would be necessary if Brooks and his colleagues would quit using Obamacare as a tool to sabotage effective governance.

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Filed under Obamacare, Partisanship