Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Saving Net Neutrality?

In the days and weeks following the midterm elections, the news has gotten steadily better. Undecided House races have been called for the Democrats; statehouses across the country have turned blue; and according to a couple of tweets from Nate Silver, the Democrats got as many votes in the midterms as Trump got in the Presidential election.

According to Silver, that’s unprecedented.

The news may also be good for Net Neutrality. According to the Brookings Institution, a combination of the Democrats’ win and a Supreme Court decision may restore non-discrimination rules to the Internet.

On November 5, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court that twice upheld the 2015 Open Internet Rule. The industry groups that had long opposed non-discriminatory access to broadband networks had previously stopped such regulation at the D.C. Circuit. When they attempted the same thing with regard to the 2015 decision of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a three-judge panel ruled the FCC’s favor. The industry then appealed the panel’s decision to the entire D.C. Circuit and lost again. The industry then appealed that loss to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court voted 4-3 (with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh abstaining) to deny a writ of certiorari for the appeal. As a result, the lower court’s decision upholding the 2015 Open Internet Rule stands.

The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet decision declared broadband providers to be Telecommunications Services subject to the common carrier requirements of Title II of the Communications Act. Just like the telegraph and telephone companies that preceded them, internet service providers could not discriminate among those using the network. They could not, for instance, break the internet into fast lanes and slow lanes depending on how much a content provider such as Netflix paid them.

It will not surprise you to learn that in 2017, Trump’s FCC repealed the Open Internet Rule, and ruled that the agency had only minimal authority over internet networks. Under Trump’s FCC chief, former Verizon honcho Ajit Pai, the Commission announced it would exercise no oversight over internet access.

As former FCC chair Tom Wheeler explains, not only did the agency created by Congress to oversee the nation’s networks walk away from that responsibility, it joined the plaintiffs in asking the Supreme Court to overrule the D.C. Circuit’s 2015 decision.

The High Court declined to do so.

Add to that encouraging development the fact that Democrats will control the House of Representatives.

House Democratic leaders from presumptive Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,) to the new Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee Frank Pallone (D-NJ), to the new Chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee Mike Doyle (D-PA) have all been vocal supporters of strong net neutrality rules.

Reps. Pallone and Doyle will be able to conduct oversight hearings into the activities of  Trump’s FCC, and on the effect of eliminating the Open Internet Rule.

Since meaningful new legislation is highly unlikely, given the GOP Senate and Trump’s threatened veto, the Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn the Open Internet Rule means non-discrimination might survive anyway.

I say “might” because the D.C. Circuit will hear arguments in February in the lawsuit challenging the FCC’s elimination of the Open Internet Rule.  If the Circuit Court rules against the FCC,  the 2015 Open Internet Rule is reinstated—and the Supreme Court has declined to consider the matter, at least for now.

In their zeal to gut oversight of their activities, the internet networks and their Trump FCC allies may have shot themselves in the foot. There is a strong case that the Trump FCC acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it repealed the 2015 Open Internet Rule and walked away from any responsibility over the most important network of the 21st century. If the D.C. Circuit makes such a finding, net neutrality would once again be the law of the land. Although the Trump FCC would probably spitefully ignore its enforcement and even force adoption of a new rule to free the broadband companies, that action would simply bolster the Democrats in the House.

Research suggests that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor retention of Net Neutrality.

I favor neutering Ajit Pai.

Solving Two Problems At Once

Thom Hartmann from Independent Media has written a column that is both provocative and persuasive.

If he’s right, it would also explain what I found inexplicable on Thanksgiving–why the GOP is so dead-set against a national system that would expand access to healthcare to all Americans.

Now we know why the GOP is truly terrified of Medicare for All; it will wipe out the Republican Party’s control of the House, Senate, White House, and most state governments. Because it could make it very easy for every citizen over 18 to vote.

Here’s how it works.

In Canada, every citizen has a Canadian government-issued “Health Insurance Card” … It’s largely only available to citizens, as all citizens are eligible for the Canadian Medicare system; everybody else has to work out other insurance options (yes, there are insurance companies in Canada). And in most provinces, the card has your photo and works as an ID card as well as a driver’s license or passport.

In Canada, that health insurance card is also a voter ID card.

As a Canadian explained to Hartmann, the health insurance card is unlike other government issued identifications, such as driver’s licenses, because virtually all Canadian citizens from all socioeconomic backgrounds have them. They can be used as photo IDs for flying domestically, buying alcohol and more importantly voting!

Among other voter suppression tactics, the GOP has spent the last decade fighting a virtually non-existent “voter fraud.” The party has used this largely fabricated concern to pass voter ID laws that make it hard for people who don’t drive –due to old age, lack of ability to afford a car, or in some cities (not mine), convenient public transportation–to cast a vote.

In 2016, Donald Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by razor-thin margins far smaller than the number of voters purged and/or turned away at the polls.

The Brennan Center documentsa 33 percent increase in voters purged during the 2014-1016 election cycle (16 million), compared with the 2006-2008 cycle (12 million purged), as the GOP has made ID and purges (along with fear mongering about brown-skinned people) their main electoral strategy. In just the past year, as many as an additional 14 million votershave been purged from rolls nationwide, while over the past two decades every Republican-controlled state has introduced rigid ID laws.

But with a national ID system in place that’s universally used because it’s the key to getting your health care and medications, there’s no need for “voter registration” and thus no ability for the GOP to purge voters. Voter registration, after all, is a practice we largely got after the Civil War because Southern white politicians warned of “voter fraud” being committed by recently freed black people, and some Northern states used it to prevent poor whites from voting.

In some places in the United States, voter registration just never caught on: North Dakota never bothered to put such a system into place; you just show up at the polls with ID to prove you’re both a citizen and resident, and vote. And with a national Medicare for All ID, every citizen could easily vote, everywhere.

Hartmann insists that the GOP’s adamant  opposition to universal coverage is partly based upon the party’s realization that the universal ID such coverage would require would allow everyone to vote.

True or not, it’s hard to argue with Hartmann when he says that Medicare for All would allow America to join the rest of the developed world, by having both a national health care system and a functioning democracy.

 

I Will Never Understand This

There are a lot of things I don’t understand. Bitcoin. How wireless internet works. Why anyone gives a rat’s patootie about Kardashian-type celebrities.  Lots more.

But on Thanksgiving–when I reflect on my good health and comfortable life and give thanks for my family– I am reminded that what I really, really don’t understand is why so many people oppose allowing government to insure other people’s health.

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly understand debating the how of healthcare, arguing for policy A rather than policy B or C. But I’m appalled by those who evidently consider health care an optional consumer good–and believe that people who can’t afford it shouldn’t have it.

What triggered this rant was a post from Dispatches from the Culture Wars. I’ve met Ed Brayton, who writes Dispatches. He is a delightful person, a steadfast proponent of reason, the rule of law, civil liberties and science.

He also has a pre-existing condition.

While Trump and virtually every Republican lies about not wanting to do away with the ACA’s protections for those who have preexisting medical conditions, the AARP has a new report out that says the result would be a massive increase in premiums for people like me, as high as $26,000 a year.

Brayton quotes from the AARP report:

The revised American Health Care Act (AHCA) threatens to do away with the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) protections for people with preexisting health conditions. These protections prevent insurance companies from denying these individuals coverage or charging them higher rates based on their health.

Eliminating these protections could force millions of Americans to — once again — rely on state high-risk pools. State high-risk pools are supposed to provide access to health insurance for people who cannot get coverage in the individual health insurance market because of preexisting health conditions.

State high-risk pools may sound like a good idea but, in reality, they are fraught with problems. One of the biggest lessons learned from experience with state high-risk pools: They bring steep premiums that put coverage out of reach for millions. In the past, monthly premiums in state high-risk pools could be up to 200 percent higher than in the individual (nongroup) market. Consequently, only a small fraction of those with preexisting conditions could afford to buy a plan. Yet, these premiums — high as they were — only covered about half the amount needed to pay enrollee claims. Most states tried to close the financial gap through taxes on providers and government subsidies, but even those efforts proved insufficient. We project that if states return to pre-ACA high-risk pools in 2019, as proposed, high-risk pool premiums for people with preexisting conditions could be as high as $25,700 annually.

Brayton’s reaction paints the picture in very personal terms:

High-risk pools are a disaster. They make insurance completely unaffordable for the overwhelming majority of people. As I’ve said many times, if the Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare, I’m dead. Probably within a year. There’s no way I could afford the premiums in a high-risk pool and my medication costs run into thousands of dollars a month, and that doesn’t count all the specialists and tests and stays in the hospitals.

The United States health industry (as a student once explained to me, we don’t have a ‘system’) costs twice as much per person as in the next most expensive country, and our outcomes are far worse. (We not only aren’t “number one,” the last time I looked, we were number 37.) Private health insurance companies have average overhead costs of 23-25% (costs that include bloated management salaries and corporate jets, along with marketing costs and personnel hired solely to decide that you don’t really need that medicine).

Medicare’s overhead is 3%.

Americans pay much more for much less, all because we don’t want to subsidize medical care for the Ed Braytons of the world–or for the children of poor families, or people who don’t look like us.

The day America joins the rest of the civilized world by guaranteeing universal access to basic medical care will really be Thanksgiving.

 

 

Telling It Like It Is: Election Version

In a riff on the title of the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Ron Klain’s recent column for the Washington Post was “What’s the Matter with Florida?”

The column could have more accurately headed “What’s Wrong With America’s Electoral ‘System’?” Note the quotation marks around the word system; they’re there because (much like the situation with health care), we don’t have anything that remotely deserves the word “system.”

As the New York Times reported just last Sunday in an article about voting glitches,

Though it wasn’t a 2000 redux, the 2018 midterms exposed persistent problems and the haphazard way the voting process was administered across the country. In Arkansas, three-member boards handle elections at the county level, while in Connecticut all 169 towns and cities use their own registrars.

The inherently political nature of running elections can call into question some officials’ decision-making.

Klain served as general counsel for Al Gore in that 2000 recount effort in Florida; he says he’s often asked why these problems keep happening in Florida.

Part of what we are seeing now in Florida, as we did in 2000, is the product of factors specific to the state: persistently weak election administration in key counties, perennially close and hard-fought elections, and a colorful group of political players that seems ripped from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But the most important thing to know about what’s happening in Florida is that it has little to do specifically with Florida at all.

Take a step back and look at the big issues playing out in Florida, and what you’ll see, instead of Florida’s foibles, are three critical challenges to American democracy as a whole.

It’s hard to argue with the negative effects of the three challenges Klain identified in his column: we allow “interested” officials to supervise elections;  we entrust the electoral process to amateurs and incompetents; and state election systems are poorly run and underfunded.

The recent midterms especially highlighted the first of these. As Klain notes,

Florida’s chief law enforcement officer, Gov. Rick Scott, who is also the Republican nominee in the Senate recount, is in a position to allege crimes by election officials, attempt to seize voting machines and dispatch state troopers to try to intervene in the post-election dispute. But a similar spectacle has been unfolding for months next door in Georgia.

As chief of election administration in Georgia, Secretary of State Brian Kemp— who is also the Republican nominee for governor, in a vote also being contested — stalled more than 50,000 new voter registrations, supported closing more than 200 polling places in predominantly minority areas and purged 1 in 10 Georgia voters from the rolls. In Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach — again, also the Republican nominee for governor — employed many of the same tactics as Kemp, and fell just short of being elected.

These are egregious conflicts of interest, but such conflicts are only slightly less concerning when partisan officials not running for office oversee elections. Those officials have, as the saying goes, “a dog in the fight,” and significant incentives to game the process to favor their political party.

The clusterf**k in Florida also illustrates Klain’s other points: the machine recount  in Palm Beach County was hampered because old machines overheated from processing so many ballots; and 30,000 ballots in Broward County recorded votes for state agriculture commissioner but not the U.S. Senate. That weird result turned out to be the result of a poorly designed ballot.  More incompetence in the state of the hanging chad….

Klain’s most important point, in my view, is the following:

But again, that’s not just in Florida. While some election misadministration (such as inadequate numbers of voting machines in targeted areas) appears to be a deliberate effort to suppress the vote in minority communities, much Election Day mayhem is caused by systems that are poorly run and underfunded.

No matter how much we hail democracy on the Fourth of July, come November, elections are just another government service: In communities where thin budgets and lax leadership produce scant bus service, slow ambulance response times and unkempt parks, we should not be surprised to find confusing ballots, bad instructions at the polls and slow vote tabulation.

For the past 40 years, Americans have been beating up on the very idea of government. We have voted for people whose proudest “qualification” is that they know nothing about public service, and for people who insist that taxation is “theft” rather than the dues we pay for civilization. We lionize the small percentage of our population who have the means to retreat into gated enclaves and provide for their own comfort and safety.

We the People no longer support government’s most basic obligation: to provide an adequate physical and social infrastructure administered by competent public servants.

It shows. And not just during elections.

 

The Wall And The Wave

No, not that wall. The wall that Republican partisan redistricting built to keep Democratic voters out.

A report from Politico in the wake of the midterm elections put it succinctly:the GOP had used partisan redistricting to build a “wall” around Congress; Trump tore it down.

For years, some Democrats said gerrymandering was an insurmountable roadblock to the House majority that couldn’t be cleared until after the 2020 census.

Then along came President Donald Trump.

House Democrats steamrolled Republicans in an array of districts last week, from those drawn by independent commissions or courts, to seats crafted specifically by Republicans with the intention of keeping them in the GOP column.

The overriding factor: a Republican president who political mapmakers could not have foreseen at the beginning of the decade. Trump altered the two parties’ coalitions in ways that specifically undermined conventional wisdom about the House map, bringing more rural voters into the GOP tent while driving away college-educated voters.

I’ve posted numerous times about the ways in which gerrymandering undercuts democratic decision-making, and discourages voter turnout. I’ve also referenced several  books and articles detailing 2011’s “RedMap”–the GOP’s most thorough, successful national effort at locking in a Republican House majority. (The book Ratfucked said it all…)

The were two important structural lessons from this year’s midterms.

First, the results confirmed a truism among political operatives and observers: In order to surmount the gerrymandered wall, Democrats would need at least a 7 point vote advantage. Nationally, they got that, and a bit more.

Second–gerrymandering really does matter more than the geography of “sorting” would suggest. In Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, he pointed out that Americans currently migrate to locations where they feel philosophically and politically comfortable. We can see the results in the rise of the Urban Archipelago–those blue dots representing cities with populations over 500,000.

One argument against nonpartisan redistricting rests on the theory that–since we have “sorted” ourselves into red and blue enclaves– gerrymandering really doesn’t make much difference. The Politico article undercuts that argument, bigly.

Despite Democrats’ massive House gains — the party’s biggest since 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation — redistricting clearly held them back in some places. Democrats netted at least 21 districts drawn by independent commissions or courts — getting a major boost from courts in Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia that altered GOP-drawn maps in the past two years — along with 10 districts drawn by Republicans and the two in Illinois that were drawn by Democrats.

As the article makes clear, Democrats did appreciably better in non-gerrymandered districts.

The blue wave was high enough to overcome a large number of gerrymandered walls, thanks to revulsion against and very welcome rejection of Donald Trump. But in districts drawn fairly–without partisan bias–they did even better.

Gerrymandering, vote suppression (Georgia, anyone?) and the other tactics being used by the GOP to game the system need to be eliminated. A few states–Missouri and Michigan among them–voted this month for fair elections; the rest of us need to do the same.

We shouldn’t need a “wave” to install a government that reflects the values of  the majority  of America.