Repeal, replace; reveal disgrace

The House vote Thursday will tell us a lot about who we are as a society. Sixty times  over the past seven years the Republicans could afford to play games with their efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act (ACA), knowing that President Obama would veto their destructive behavior. Now we’re talking about real people, real money.

It’s “fake news” to say that Obamacare is a disaster. It had problems, but its flaws could have been corrected (as were flaws in Medicare and Social Security). It’s also deceptive to say Obamacare was not a bipartisan plan.  It was a conservative idea hatched by the Heritage Foundation and embraced by Republican Governor Mitt Romney, whose plan became the model for Obamacare. As syndicated columnist Froma Harrop said, “it was a bipartisan plan. It just didn’t get a bipartisan vote.”

The various Republican proposals amount to little more than voodoo economics. The President promised that he’d deliver better care at lower cost. Now the Republicans appear headed for less care at higher cost.

Over the next ten  years, their  “repeal and replace” strategy is projected to leave 24 million without health coverage, 14 million of them this year alone. Some would be without health insurance because they choose not to buy it. Fine. That’s their choice. But should taxpayers have to pay for them if they get sick and have to go to the emergency room? Mitt Romney knew a successful plan would mandates to buy insurance to discourage “free riders.”

Others won’t buy coverage due to premium increases. Some premiums will rise from $1700 to $14,600.  If you can’t afford something, choosing not to buy it isn’t a testament to marketplace free choice. Many others would lose coverage due to Medicaid cuts, among them people at the heart of Trump’s base, 60-year-olds with annual incomes of $30,000 living in rural America.  Still others would lose insurance because their employers would no longer be required to provide it.

How can supporters say with a straight face that costs will go down? Replacing subsidies with tax credits is a cruel joke for low-income people, who can’t afford to front the costs of higher and higher premiums, not to mention greatly increased co-pays and deductibles. The ACA did fail to control underlying health costs, though it significantly reduced the rate of increase in insurance costs. It didn’t do enough to incentivize young people to buy in to spread the risk. Without spreading the risk, experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, predict that premiums will go up even more rapidly than they were under the ACA. Still, the GOP plan eliminates the individual mandate, and can’t possibly be actuarially sound.

Under pressure back home, Republicans vowed to preserve protections for pre-existing conditions and allow young adults to stay on their parents’ policies.  How will they pay for it?

The American Health Care Act (call it Trumpcare or Ryancare) would cut Medicaid by hundreds of millions of dollars effective 2020 and block-grant it to the states. States would determine eligibility and benefits.  Tax credits would be age-based, not income-based, and put low-income elderly at a huge disadvantage. AARP is calling the approach an “age tax.” At the same time, higher-income Americans would get a substantial cut in the taxes that were passed to fund the Affordable Care Act. What we have here is a massive income redistribution from lower-income to the more affluent.  The proposed legislation would cut federal deficits by $337 billion, but the Freedom Caucus (the former Tea Party) thinks even that doesn’t go far enough.  Like many an operating room, there will be blood on the floor.

Thursday’s vote is the first test. The President seems happy letting Speaker Ryan struggle with this tar baby, knowing that, if the bill gets stuck in the Senate, he  can still blame the Democrats.  But it is Donald Trump who promised to provide better health care for less money. Making good on that commitment is an exercise in smoke and mirrors. And smoking, we know, is bad for our health.

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Trump budget: keeping his promises? graphic

They say it’s DOA – that all Presidents’ budgets are dead on arrival. We might want to think this is just the opening gambit from the central player in The Art of the Deal,  in this era of obtuse and erratic Presidential actions, there is no certainty of outcome. One’s head spins.

The $1.1 trillion document speaks volumes of the President’s values and lays out the parameters of a bloody budget battle.  His budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, used Trump’s campaign promises as the blueprint and says cutting  taxes is “the most compassionate thing we can do.”

The only increase is $54 billion more for the military and homeland security. With this kind of boost, why would our allies take seriously Trump’s demand that they come up with their “fair share” of defense costs? Isn’t the negotiator-in-chief undercutting his own bargaining position?

And how would the United States pay for this increase? Bodies everywhere. 16 percent cut from human services. 14 percent from education. A 31 percent cut in environmental protection, including reducing Great Lakes cleanup from $300 million to $10 million. We’re going back to the bad old days when the Cuyahoga River (flowing into Lake Erie) caught on fire due to the toxins in the water. Maybe deregulating health and safety will mean fewer people living long enough to need government benefits!  Is that a component of the GOP’s so-called “dynamic scoring?”

A 30 percent cut in the State Department will cripple “soft”diplomacy. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis indicated that it’s unwise to rely solely on the military to advance our national interest.  An 18 percent cut in the National Institutes for Health will slow medical research. I guess deadly viruses will be blocked from our shores by an immigrant ban.

The  National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts would be eviscerated. (It’s tempting to believe reports that the NEA budget is  less than the cost to provide security for the First Lady and her son living away in New York, but the numbers don’t compute.) Among the verifiable outrages, however, President Donald Trump would cut Community Development Block Grants heavily affecting the Meals on Wheels Program as well as heating assistance to the poor elderly. Really?

One quarter of the Massachusetts budget relies on federal funds. The Trump budget could cut jobs drastically here, especially in health care. This state gets more National Health Institute funding per capita than any other state. Overall, Senator Edward Markey predicts a loss of $1 billion, though it’s not clear that his assessment factors in potential increases in defense spending. Either way, this isn’t going to be pretty.

As grotesque as the budget cuts are, they may not be as destabilizing as the President’s erratic, ignorant tweet-driven behavior.   I keep hoping to wake up from this bad dream. More importantly, I keep hoping that members of Congress, especially the Republicans, will wake up from whatever they’re dreaming about and put a halt to the insanity. Their party won the election and can reasonably be expected to trim the sails on Democrats’ priorities for spending, but even a fractious GOP can set a new course philosophically without capsizing the ship of state.

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Florida escape warm but no political respite

Twelve days in Florida were a therapeutic escape from grey snow and brutal cold in Massachusetts, but even in the Sunshine State one couldn’t escape the maladies of the political environment. A tour boat along the inland waterway near Palm Beach chronicled gossipy profiles of the billionaires, including Bernie Madoff marks, who built breath-taking mansions. Visitors are regaled with what the homes’ market values are, the net worth of the residents, and how they made their money. They are, quite clearly, Trump insiders.  We in the Northeast are always accused of living in a bubble.  What kind of bubble is Palm Beach?

Friends and relatives living on the island regaled us with stories of how miserable Donald Trump has made ordinary people’s lives during his weekends at Mar-a-Lago when security precautions, including road closings,  create traffic jams and create physical discomfort. Some home owners are putting their mansions on the market because agencies protecting the President won’t let them go about their lives. Others are staying away. Ten-minute trips are taking well over an hour. One woman with a gastrointestinal disorder had to make a U-turn across two manicured lawns because she couldn’t stand the pressure of waiting to reach her bathroom.

Business is off from pricey Worth Avenue to small vendors dependent on weekend beach trade. (National Public Radio told of a company that sells advertising by flying banners over beaches on weekends, but he is being forced out of business because federal rules ban flights in that airspace when the President is in residence.) Gardeners have to be off Palm Beach Island by three o’clock in the afternoon. This is certainly just a “first world problem” for affluent local residents, but the gardeners are not well-heeled. Often immigrants laboring to support their families, they are just collateral damage of Donald Trump’s lifestyle.

With all the lock-down and inconvenience created in the name of security, Politico  has called Mar-a-Lago a “haven for spies” due to lax control of access to the club itself. Why can’t Donald Trump just go to the secure Presidential retreat at Camp David, which we taxpayers are already paying for? Too rustic and private for his desire to lead the ostentatious life among the beautiful people, one supposes.

We haven’t been back to the West Coast of Florida since the election, but we’ve heard that the longtime, laid-back unpretentious character of the region has been replaced by triumphant mid-West snowbirds exulting in Trump’s victory. This is a battle ground state, even after the election. While Palm Beach County went for Hillary Clinton, Palm Beach itself voted heavily for Donald Trump. Other nearby counties are Trump territory too. Now the locals are living with the results, as is the rest of the country, but arguably in a more intimate way.  The lesson of the day: Be careful what you wish for.

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And the Oscar goes to Donald Trump?

Donald Trump read a teleprompter-guided speech to a joint session of Congress last night that was softer in tone than his usual dystopian rants. He didn’t froth with insults, sneer disdainfully, gesticulate wildly or drift off message into solipsistic indulgences. Because the bar is set so low for this, the least popular new White House chief executive, his address earned rave reviews from commentators on the left and right for being “presidential.” He also didn’t wear too much artificial tan makeup and orange hair coloring. If it wasn’t yet an Oscar-nomination worthy performance, his calm delivery of a well-crafted speech should give him a bump in public opinion polls, especially from those who embrace rhetorical style and Reaganesque stagecraft as a fitting substitute for substance.

When it came to content, there were no specifics as to exactly what he proposed to do and how he would pay for it. This was true for his lofty language about infrastructure, health care, immigration, tax reform, trade, economics and foreign policy.

His call for a sprit of national unity was refreshing , but it has not yet been matched by proposals designed to bridge our great divides. The speech was little more than a SteveMiller/Ivanka Trump filtered articulation of Steve Bannon’s  corrosive three pillars: security from America First sovereignty, economic nationalism and deconstruction of the administrative state, adorned with some velvet bunting.

It was still Campaign 2016 Redux. That meant more erroneous attacks on lawless chaos when crime rates are largely down, arrant dismissal of years of a growing economy and record low unemployment, and dire warnings about immigration that only building a wall can cure. As fact checkers have demonstrated time and time again,  most of his adverse characterizations (crime, taking away American jobs, etc) are wrong. Yes, he can cherry pick anecdotes to make a point, but the points earn multiple Pinocchios,  misleading as to larger trends. Trump today is the same Trump as yesterday.

The most painful exploitation for symbolic purposes was the long, intense focus on Navy Seal Ryan Owen’s grieving widow, sitting in the gallery next to Ivanka Trump, sobbing her heart out, perhaps reassured by the applause that her husband’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain. The political theater was clearly designed to distract us from  appeals for an investigation that might prove otherwise.

Trump’s  lobbying restrictions provide more loopholes than they close. And the alligators who dominate his cabinet give little reassurance that he will drain the swamp.  His claim to have already saved a great many jobs makes no mention that those jobs, in several cases, reflect decisions made by companies before his Presidency. The number of jobs to be created by the two pipelines are a scant portion of his claim and the steel for the projects are coming from Russia and India.

Trump’s throw away line about the desirability of paid family leave is but one small example of the hollowness of his proposals. He gave no idea whom  it would benefit or who would pay. He railed about drugs pouring across our border, but was silent on the sources of our home grown opioid crisis. What was not mentioned was more unsettling than what was.What are the implications of gutting the State Department, EPA and many worthwhile programs?

Most of the speech was about fulfilling campaign promises, but in combination these program items are contradictory, frightening, misleading  and  don’t add up, individually or collectively.  Maybe the President has decided to get Price Waterhouse ‘s Academy Award staff to be America’s official accountants?

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Immigration issue overwhelms

Getty Images

Getty Images

Immigration advocates called President Barack Obama the “Deporter in Chief.” His administration deported record numbers of immigrants while Republican critics insist he was soft on illegals. Now comes Trump, with his vastly expanded list of immigrants who could be subject to deportation and his proposed cut-off of federal funds to sanctuary cities refusing to help ICE officials deport immigrants accused of low-level crimes. The impact of Trump’s ham-handed approach is all around us. He says he wants to focus on gangbangers and bad hombres, but his executive order covers not only terrorists and violent criminals but those “present in violation of immigration laws.” Trump also referred to the deportation process as a “military action.”

My own hometown, Newton, MA, a city of 88,000, where 22 percent are foreign born, just passed an ordinance declaring itself a “welcoming city.”  The ordinance formalizes Newton’s longstanding, informal policy wherein police and other officials would help the feds enforce civil immigration in only limited circumstances. These, logically, are where an individual has a prior conviction for a violent felony, is suspected of terrorism, or has an outstanding criminal warrant.  Newton now stands shoulder to shoulder with other cities in Massachusetts and elsewhere that have  similar policies but label themselves sanctuary cities.  The new Trump executive order on immigration threatens to withhold federal dollars from such communities. If his authority to do so withstands court challenge, could cost Newton a not insignificant $12 million.

According to the Newton TAB, local police have, over the last six years,  detained three people  in cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The new ordinance is a rational one, designed, as are other sanctuary policies, to foster good community relations and not scare undocumented immigrants from cooperating with law enforcement investigations or calling in reports of domestic abuse and other crimes.

Public debate has tended to be binary: either pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, without differentiating nuances  or distinguishing legal immigrants (including students, doctors, high tech workers and more) and the various categories of illegal immigrants. Many restaurants across the country observed a Day without Immigrants, leading to some restaurants unable to serve the public, including the U.S. Senate coffee shop.  The Davis Museum, on the campus of my alma mater Wellesley College, removed or covered 120 works of art either created by or donated by immigrants.  The empty walls told a compelling story of how immigrants have contributed to our culture.

Even if a policy attempts to focus on illegals, it’s complicated.  For now, Trump is not deporting the so-called “dreamers,” minors bought here illegally by their parents. But these young people don’t know if their status under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) will be renewed when it expires in two years. There’s no sign that Congress is prepared to make to make it permanent, and this could all be part of a Trump/Bannon strategy to slowlykill off the program.

Two thirds of undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for a decade or more, most functioning as productive members of the work force. All this argues for a comprehensive immigration reform, not unlike the Simpson-Mazzoli law of 1986. This doesn’t seem likely to happen in 2017.

The Trump policy is sweeping and ambiguous, justifiably concerning the foreign-born among us, including those with incontrovertible legal status. Even the revised iteration of Trump’s immigration proposal reinforces the sense that our Chief Executive is a thoughtless authoritarian.

He’s probably happy that a new Quinnipiac poll says that by a two-to-one margin, the American people see him as a strong person. But the same percentages say he’s not level headed and doesn’t share their values.  His overall approval rating has slipped to 38 percent, but, while 91 percent of Democrats disapprove, 83 percent of Republicans do approve. And we know which party is in the driver’s seat in Congress. Things won’t turn around, on immigration or any other issue, until Congressional Republicans  recognize what a danger Trump is to this country and see it in their self-interest to find ways to blunt his most toxic actions.

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News media a bulwark nationally and locally

trump-in-red-tieThe news media aren’t perfect, to be sure, but now, as never before, they’re the living embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s opinion that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”  If it weren’t for pressure from coverage in newspapers, TV, cable and social media, Donald Trump would still have duplicitous National Security Director Michael Flynn overseeing our national security concerns. This, at a time when North Korea is firing off nuclear missiles, Russian is tampering with our elections, bombing insurgent forces and civilians in Syria, and turning up the heat on the Ukraine, and terrorism threatens the home front. Writer Nick Kristof reminds us of how, in 1974, Richard Nixon said Watergate “would have been a blip” if it weren’t for journalists “who hate my guts.”

If it weren’t for media coverage, repulsive billionaire restaurateur and serial labor law violator Andrew Puzder would be Labor Secretary and Congress might not get pushed, however reluctantly, into examining potential wrongdoing by an autocratic, ignorant, and chaotic Trump administration, which, without push-back, would be running even more roughshod over our democracy. The Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times deserve credit for taking the lead.

Jefferson believed that power resides in the people, who, though they might go astray, would eventually self-correct, especially if they were given full and accurate information. The responsibility to provide that plays out even in local weeklies. Take, for example, the case of the Newton TAB, dropped every Wednesday for free at the end of driveways in this suburb of 82,000 people.

But for an anonymous letter a year ago, two disturbing anti-Semitic incidents at Day Junior High School four months earlier would  never have come to light. School administrators failed to respond appropriately. Finally, an  outside investigation was held, and a highly redacted report was released. The TAB repeatedly called for more public access to the report’s contents, repeatedly pressing its case with the Public Records Division of the Secretary of State’s office. It took nearly a year for what should have been made public to be exposed to the light of day. The public had a right to know, and the press played its role in fulfilling that right.

The Mayor has just called for a review of how the School Committee responds to civil rights laws and handles such requests for information.  Setti Warren, considering a run for governor, readily criticizes Governor Charlie Baker and (less readily) the legislature for lack of transparency.  He clearly understands that transparency begins at home. Thank you to the local paper for keeping the need for transparency on the front burner.

Jefferson was not without doubts about whether all citizens had the intellectual capacity to make the right decision, even with the right information provided by the press and by our educational institutions. And he never anticipated an era of social media and false news about the American election created by Macedonian teenagers getting money from stories they made up as “clickbait.”  Or, forget Macedonia. Jefferson could not have anticipated the viral thrust of fake news on Facebook.

It was so powerful that even today our Putin sock puppet President can stand up at a press conference and lament the treatment of Michael Flynn as illegal leaks and fake news perpetuated by the hated intelligence community and lying media.  But more and more, especially as the traditional print and electronic media have reasserted themselves, the American people are getting onto him.  Our national nightmare won’t soon be over, but at least people are waking up to who Donald Trump is and the threat he represents.  Now the media must meet the challenge of simultaneously exposing what Congress and federal agencies, in the midst of the daily Trump distractions, is systematically doing to reverse the economic and environmental protections put into effect over decades.

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Elizabeth Warren speaks truth to power

elizabeth-warren-silenced-in-senateSo, let me get this straight.  It’s okay if Senator Ted Cruz calls Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the floor of the Senate. But it’s not okay if Senator Elizabeth Warren reads letters critical of Attorney General nominee Senator Jeff Sessions from the late Senator Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King (describing him at a time when Sessions was not in the Senate)?  The King letter said that Sessions, under consideration for a federal judgeship in Alabama in 1986, had, as Alabama Attorney General,  used “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”  The Kennedy statement called Sessions a “throwback to a shameful era.” Both Democrats and Republicans voted to defeat the Sessions judgeship.

Both Cruz and Warren may have violated Senate rule 19, barring anyone from “impugning” or speaking ill of a fellow Senator, but it is total hypocrisy that McConnell should have invoked that obscure rule and Senate Republicans supported silencing her. Warren was barred from participating in any Senate discussion of the Sessions nomination.  As Bernie Sanders said afterward,  the American people have a right to and expect a vigorous discussion of any issue. The GOP’s shutting Warren down, Sanders said, is “incomprehensible.”  Sanders and three other Democrats followed up reading the King letter without comparable punishment, and other Democrats stood by her.

Apparently, truth is no defense. McConnell, who tolerated Cruz’ personal insult, deemed the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s widow to be so inappropriate they couldn’t be read on the floor of the Senate. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch remembers the old days and deplores the current tone of the upper branch. He said that, while he sometimes disagrees with Sessions,  he has known him for 20 years and always found him to be a gentleman. Veteran Hatch said that Warren’s prolonged attack may not have risen to a violation of Rule 19, but “it came pretty close.”   Decorum in the once deliberative body has long since left the building. Its norms are flouted regularly.

Rule 19 was promulgated in 1902 when a dispute between two Democratic Senators from South Carolina erupted in a fist fight. In 1979, name calling erupted between Connecticut Democrat Lowell Weicker and Republican John Heinz of Pennsylvania. Heinz cited Rule 19, but Majority Leader Robert Byrd got them to shake hands. And that was that.

The bottom line is that Sessions’ entire record should be scrutinized before he is confirmed, as he inevitably will be, to be Attorney General of the United States. We look to leaders like Warren to stand tall and evaluate Trump’s nominees, warts and all.  She shouldn’t have been subjected to humiliation and silenced for fulfilling her responsibility to do just that.

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