Republican Cruelty, Democratic Passivity, and What the Lack of Flint Funding Can Tell Us about the Trump Years

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In just two days, it will be December, and Flint still hasn’t gotten funding from the federal government to address its water crisis.

The water crisis dates back to April 2014, and it was back in January when the cases of Legionnaires’ disease got media attention. Flint still doesn’t have clean water, an indictment of our political system—both Republican cruelty and Democratic passivity.

No story about Flint should go without recognition of the role of Republican Governor Rick Snyder (someone who seems to reach an almost cartoon-villain level of callousness) and his administration, but I want to focus on Congressional politics here.

Back in February, Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan attempted to secure $600 million for Flint, including $400 million to match state funds to repair and replace old pipes in the city (the rest going to a research and education center on lead poisoning), via the Energy Policy Modernization Act. Most of the Senate Democratic Caucus blocked the cloture votes on the bill in order to demand funding for Flint. Republicans did not oblige, and when the bill came back up two months later, Stabenow and Democrats dropped their opposition.

Flint funding came back into the spotlight in September. On September 15, the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, which authorized $270 million to help Flint and other cities ($220 million specifically for Flint). Republicans demanded that this expenditure be “paid for,” leading to a $300 million cut in Energy Department research on advanced vehicle technology. WRDA-authorized projects were subject to future appropriations, but the Flint funding was designed to go into effect immediately.

However, that $270 million was not in the House version of WRDA, and the Continuing Resolution that had to be passed by the end of the month in order to keep the government funded offered an immediate opportunity to secure funding for Flint.

Republicans, of course, had no problem attaching $500 million in flood relief money for Louisiana (with no offset). But Louisiana has two Republican senators, and the flood-stricken area was represented by Republicans as well. Michigan has two Democratic senators, and Flint is in a Democratic district. Funny how that works.

After initial demands that Flint funding be in the CR, Democrats agreed to concede, provided that House Republicans set up an amendment vote to the WRDA to include Flint funding–but now only $170 million.

On September 28, the Senate voted for the Flint-less CR 72-26. (Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders were both not present because they were on the campaign trail for Clinton.)

Of the 26 NO votes, 12 were Democrats:

Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Al Franken (D-MN)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
Pat Leahy (D-VT)
Ed Markey (D-MA)
Bob Menendez (D-NJ)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Gary Peters (D-MI)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)

The Republicans who voted NO certainly didn’t do so out of concern for Flint. Did the Democrats? Five of them made this clear in their press releases on the vote.

Bob Menendez:

While I’m pleased that the final continuing resolution keeps our government running and provides much-needed funding to address the Zika public health crisis, I could not in good conscience vote for legislation that ignores the plight of 100,000 Americans living in Flint who were poisoned by their water supply, and also includes a measure that prohibits the government from lifting the veil on corporate political contributions.

 

Jeff Merkley:

While I’m encouraged that the House leadership has committed to providing aid to assist Flint with its lead contamination disaster, there is still no reason why that aid should not be funded immediately—just like the aid for Louisiana flood victims—rather than having to wait until after the election. Flint families have already been living with dangerously contaminated water for two years, and they should not have to wait a day longer for help. Geography, race, and partisan politics should never determine disaster assistance, and it’s wrong to help out the victims of one disaster while telling others that they must continue to wait at the back of the line.

 

Gary Peters:

“But these fully paid-for Flint resources were put on hold while disaster relief for flooding victims in Louisiana was included. I support helping people in Louisiana during their crisis, but we should not pick and choose to help some states and not others.

 

“I could not support a government spending bill that will – once again – force the citizens of Flint to wait on the help they so desperately need.

 

“It is unacceptable that the bipartisan, fully-offset Flint aid package was left out. There is no excuse for leaving the people of Flint behind.

 

“It has been a year since the first public health emergency declaration in Flint, and over eight months since a national emergency was declared. Yet almost 100,000 residents of Flint still do not have a reliable source of safe water. They are still using bottled to water to drink, to cook, and to bathe.

 

Debbie Stabenow:

Earlier this week, the House refused to take any action to help the people of Flint. After last night’s negotiations, we now have a path forward to finally pass the Water Resources Development Act with long-awaited assistance for Flint.  It is critical that the House echo the strong bipartisan support that we saw for WRDA in the Senate and that action happen as soon as possible for the people of Flint.  My position on the government funding bill remains the same: I will vote no on any CR that does not treat communities equally.  It is wrong to ask families in Flint to wait at the back of the line again.

 

Elizabeth Warren:

Is this what we have come to? Is this what politics has become? There are 100,000 people in Flint, a town where more than half the residents are African-American and nearly half live in poverty. They get nothing because voters sent two Democrats to the Senate?This is not a game. Flint is not a Democratic city or a Republican city; it is an American city. The children who have been poisoned are American children. The principle of standing up for those in need is an American principle.

 

I am a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, but I will help the Republican Senators from Louisiana. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their hour of need, but I am sick and tired–I am past sick and tired–of Republican Senators who come here and demand Federal funding when their communities are hit by a crisis but block help when other States need it. Their philosophy screams, “I want mine, but the rest of you are on your own.” It is ugly, un-American, and just plain wrong.

 

We must stand with the Senators from Michigan. We must stand with the children of Flint, and we must put aside ugly partisanship that is literally poisoning a town full of American families. Any Member of the House or Senate who doesn’t stand with them lacks the moral courage to serve in this Congress.

 

Merkley, Menendez, and Warren also highlighted their opposition to a Republican rider that would block the SEC from developing, proposing, issuing, finalizing, or implementing a rule requiring public companies to disclose political spending to their own shareholders. Ron Wyden highlighted the rule as his grounds for opposition as well.

Later that day, the House passed its Flint funding amendment 284-141, the amended WRDA 399 to 25, and the Flint-less CR 342 to 85.

Only 10 Democrats voted against the CR:

Earl Blumenauer (OR-03)
John Conyers (MI-13)
Pete DeFazio (OR-04)
Debbie Dingell (MI-12)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Dan Kildee (MI-05)
Brenda Lawrence (MI-14)
Sandy Levin (MI-09)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)

The Michigan delegation voted against the CR because of the lack of Flint funding. DeFazio, Ellison, McDermott, and Waters did not issue press releases about their opposition. Blumenauer opposed it because Republicans had blocked a provision of his to make it easier for veterans to acquire medical marijuana across state lines.

The WRDA, along with the Flint funding promise, is now awaiting a conference, with just over a month left in the Congressional session. And Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

This history should prove concerning as we look ahead to the years of a Trump presidency and Republican-controlled House and Senate. Democrats give up their demands quite easily and are willing to vote for Continuing Resolutions to keep the government funded despite whatever riders Republicans put into them. Republican cruelty and Democratic passivity are a toxic mix. I’ll talk more about this dynamic in another post later this week.

Two Big Takeaways for the NDP on Canada’s 2015 election

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Editor’s Note: On October 19, 2015, Canadians voted all across their country to elect a new parliament. There were three major parties contesting the election everywhere and a couple minor parties. After the last federal parliamentary elections (in 2011), the Conservatives held a majority, the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) were the second-place party (heading the opposition for the first time), and the centrist Liberal Party finished third. At the start of this year’s election, the NDP had a large lead in the polls seemed poised to form a government for the first time in Canada’s history. As the campaign progressed, however, the NDP’s support collapsed and voters instead chose to elect a Liberal Party majority to parliament. This majority will be led by Justin Trudeau, the son of former longtime prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who led the party from 1968 to 1984. The Conservatives finished second. The NDP finished a distant third.

Below, guest contributor and NDP supporter Adam Chaikof presents the two major lessons he drew from the NDP’s unsuccessful campaign to lead the federal government for the first time in party history.

Lesson 1: Don’t treat balanced budgets like a sacred cow (especially during economic downturns).

It certainly goes without saying that one of the most common right-wing retorts to any suggestion of expanding the welfare state or investing in jobs or infrastructure is that such measures are too costly and will only increase the national debt and deficit.

Besides the obvious ideological reasons, the Right constantly employs this line of attack because voters easily understand it. After all, many voters reason, if we have to live within our means, why shouldn’t the government do the same?

Within this framing, beyond completely rejecting the Left’s core principles, left-wing parties can respond to these accusations in one of two ways: they can either try to convince the electorate that they’re actually better at balancing the budget than the Right, or they can argue that running a short-term deficit isn’t harmful and is necessary to stimulate the economy.

In other words, the Left can either try to win the debate on balanced budgets on the Right’s terms, or they can try to reset the debate’s terms altogether. During this most recent election in Canada, the NDP chose the former route, while the Liberals chose the latter.

The NDP chose this strategy for two reasons. First, NDP provincial governments actually have better fiscal records on average than both Liberal and Conservative ones despite spending more on economic and social programs.

Unfortunately, there is one notable – and very noticeable – exception to the NDP’s fiscal record: Bob Rae’s provincial government in Ontario from 1990 to 1995. Rae’s early 90s legacy still haunts the NDP in the electorally vital province of Ontario. This is the root cause of the second reason for the NDP’s strategy of campaigning on fiscal responsibility.

Rae’s record is still hotly debated – and he actually has long since defected from the NDP to the Liberals – but the most commonly accepted narrative is this: After leading the NDP to its first ever victory in Ontario in 1990, Rae unsuccessfully tried to spend Ontario’s way out of a recession and was then forced to implement austerity measures after exploding the province’s deficit.

Whether you accept this narrative or not, it’s undeniable that Rae’s poor economic record has been like a millstone around the NDP’s neck in Ontario at both the federal and provincial levels for the past 20 years. Ontario sends the most federal MPs to Parliament. In other words, eager to convince voters of its fiscal credibility and finally excise the ghost of the Rae Provincial Government, the NDP made maintaining a balanced budget one its main campaign planks.

This decision, however, had serious repercussions for the NDP. Many voters simply didn’t believe that the NDP’s proposals for raising revenue (e.g. raising corporate taxes by 2%, closing tax loopholes, etc.) would be enough to pay for its other spending promises. These included universal childcare and pharmacare, a national housing and transit strategy, reversing Harper’s cuts to health care and pensions, a national cap-and-trade system, and new investments in clean energy and manufacturing.

These proposals remained very popular, to be sure, but Canadians didn’t have much faith in the NDP being able to implement them properly because it seemed like they were trying to have it both ways: Spending a lot while balancing budgets. Read more

Paying “in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing”

A fairly stark assessment of the Afghanistan mess last week buried in a New York Times article:

“We need to have a conversation about how much we care about this place,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at The New America Foundation in Washington.

“Are we willing to spend — the numbers are fuzzy — but somewhere between $10 and $20 billion per year in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing,” said Mr. Ollivant, who previously who worked in the National Security Council for Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush. “And we’re not talking about it being Xanadu — we’re talking about not collapsing.”

 
This phrasing, “in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing,” immediately called to mind a December 2009 post I wrote entitled: “Afghan Army recruitment jumps, US underwrites”

Afghanistan’s government, unlike Iraq’s, doesn’t have oil revenues to support a strong central military. The CIA World Factbook mentions very little in the way of non-poppy or foreign aid-related economic sources for Afghanistan, and notes that the poppy trade provides about $3 billion to the country’s (black market) economy.
[…]
Then, I remembered yesterday’s headline: “Karzai Says Afghan Army Will Need Help Until 2024,” referring to monetary support. Both articles are New York Times, but no mention in today’s article on pay raises. Well, connecting the dots, I made an educated guess that the US just underwrote a big pay raise for the Afghan Army, with very convenient timing. You might think this is good because now the Army will compete with the Taliban in recruiting people and thus security will improve. There’s the big problem, however. We can’t keep underwriting these pay raises forever. The United States is not going to keep fully financing the Afghan Army for fourteen years. We probably can’t afford to.
[…]
What makes 2024 the magic number anyway? There’s still no big revenue source available to the Afghan government in 2024, and so the Army would still run out of money. And then we’re back at square one.

 
Not much has changed then except that we’re further back now than in 2009 and many billions deeper in the hole. So when do we stop throwing good money after bad?

We created this money pit, but eventually the “remedy” is net-neutral at best and actively hurting at worst.

13 of Truman’s 21 policy points from 1945 are relevant today

In an address to Congress just days after the celebration of V-J Day in the United States, President Harry S. Truman outlined to Congress what the country must do after World War II. 13 of those 21 policy points remain fully or significantly relevant in 2015, seventy years later.

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“Special Message to the Congress Presenting a 21-Point Program for the Reconversion Period” – September 6, 1945
1. Unemployment compensation
2. Fair Labor Standards Act

5. Full Employment
6. Fair Employment (non-discrimination)
7. Harmonious Industrial-Labor relations
8. Job creation for returning veterans and in regions where job opportunities are scarce
9. Sustainable agriculture

11. Housing for all (urban and rural) and socially responsible city planning
12. Support for research (academic, industrial, governmental)
13. Responsible tax policy (matching revenues to expenditure needs, balancing burden distribution)

15. Support for small business
16. Support for returning veterans in all arenas of life (GI Bill and health care)
17. Investment in public works and conservation of national resources

(These points are all elaborated in greater detail at the link above to the full speech. The points not included all relate more specifically to the World War II situation itself or its immediate aftermath.)

House Progressives may actually get a bank handout slashed

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David Dayen for The New Republic, commenting on how U.S. House Progressive Caucus found spare billions in needless Federal spending at the Fed lying around that may now be used to help pay for a highway spending bill compromise the Congressional Republicans are seriously considering:

But $16.3 billion in pure corporate welfare is not nothing. And the lesson here is the importance of having policies available on a shelf. Many observers deride the Progressive Caucus’ budget as an exercise in futility. But without the inclusion of the Fed dividend policy, Barbara Boxer wouldn’t have known about it when negotiating the highway bill. Even in a time of minority governance, having a storehouse of ideas that can be pulled out in opportunistic moments matters a great deal.

Read the full story.

Now that’s real fiscal responsibility.

Tax savings that cost more than social expenditures

From a 2013 Baltimore Sun piece, “Cut tax breaks, not food stamps”, how U.S. executives can save more in taxes in a single dinner than poor families can receive in food stamp money in a month:

Imagine that the tab for dinner and drinks for 10 executives comes to $1,600. Current tax law allows companies to deduct half of the cost of business meals — in this case, $800. With a corporate tax rate of 35 percent, each dollar of deductions yields 35 cents of tax savings — so that $800 deduction saves $280 in taxes. This means one dinner for 10 people provides more public food assistance than the $279 an average household receives in food stamps for the whole month.

 
But somehow we can’t possibly afford such programs.

h/t Wonkblog: “The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.”

I suspect I’m going to have a lot more to say on this particular topic of tax savings that cost more than social program expenditures in future posts and episodes of the radio show. Particularly after I started reading through various Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) reports on tax subsidies to the wealthy, including their 2014 report “Redeploying $540 Billion in Federal Spending to Help All Americans Save, Invest, and Build Wealth” (PDF). Spoiler alert: Hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue is lost each year to Federal tax credit programs disproportionately (and needlessly) benefiting wealthy households.

Should government programs be funded Moneyball-style?

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In the Big Data age, everyone wants to measure things — and see if they can be made to work better. It’s a good impulse in most cases, but is it being applied appropriately to government?

In a new NYT post, David Leonhardt examines trends in testing government programs for quantifiable effectiveness. He notes initially that despite a widespread public suspicion of central government (or any) in this country, the Federal government actually does have a pretty impressive track record in a lot of areas. But it also has come under increasing fire in the past twenty years for being slow to adopt popular private-sector tools for measuring effectiveness of dollars for outcomes.

Of the 11 large programs for low- and moderate-income people that have been subject to rigorous, randomized evaluation, only one or two show strong evidence of improving most beneficiaries’ lives. “Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments.

As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”

And yet there is some good news in this area, too. The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.

The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

 
Now, I support measuring government programs to try to make them better. But there are immediate red flags for me surrounding the “how” part of measuring and the “what happens next” after the measuring.

I have four major areas of concern about this trend:

1) Who gets to determine the definitions of “cost-effective” or efficient? Who sets the cutoff points for when a program is simply too ineffective or not getting enough bang-for-the-buck to continue? Do these people consider realities on the ground and the lives affected or just look at spreadsheets?

Are the people creating measurement systems representatives of the people at large and the communities being served by the programs? Are they comprehensively trained in the relevant area backgrounds? Are they just more Wall Street-turned-public-servant-turned-future-lobbyist folks? Are they trying to measure things just to prove government “doesn’t work”?

2) Are we currently under-funding many of these programs so severely and chronically that we can’t effectively demonstrate success they might otherwise have if consistently funded at appropriate levels? Are we going to cut off money to these “under-performing” programs that we’ve already starved of money?

In education, in particular, we’ve seen the paired trend of measuring performance standards (which I agree is very important) and then tying Federal funding to districts and local funding to teachers to these results without first making the changes (including funding increases!) necessary to improve the results. Are we also going to start taking away money from programs that aren’t “improving” enough each year because they’re already doing well? (This was the famous backfiring of No Child Left Behind in high-performing education states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.)

To return to the Leonhardt article for a moment (my bolding added):

New York City, Salt Lake City, New York State and Massachusetts have all begun programs to link funding for programs to their success: The more effective they are, the more money they and their backers receive. The programs span child care, job training and juvenile recidivism.

The approach is known as “pay for success,” and it’s likely to spread to Cleveland, Denver and California soon. David Cameron’s conservative government in Britain is also using it. The Obama administration likes the idea, and two House members – Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, and John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat – have introduced a modest bill to pay for a version known as “social impact bonds.”

 
Republicans have moved the goalposts so far since the start of the Reagan Administration with their view that “government is the problem, not the solution” that everything seems to be catered toward “proving” this claim by decades of intentionally “starving the beast” — under-funding/de-funding programs across the board by slashing revenues to pay for them — and then measuring outcomes afterward.

Back to my areas of concern…

3) While it’s important to get as much out of each dollar invested as possible (so you can use as much of the money as possible for as many people as possible), many public functions are public because they are not effective money-makers and need to be funded regardless of balance sheet results. Sometimes things just aren’t all that “cost-effective,” yet are necessary for the promotion or execution of certain social and economic goals.

In fact, the push for “cost-effectiveness” as a measurement skips over the fact that the goal of some programs is to provide an emergency economic floor, below which citizens should not be able to fall, rather than being designed to lift them up. A floor is not an elevator, and you wouldn’t measure a floor’s elevation over time to find out if it’s getting you closer to the top of the building. Many of the War on Poverty programs, in particular, don’t get nearly enough credit for being a major force in keeping total destitution in check even during long recessions and stagnant recoveries, because critics are too busy asking why they haven’t outright ended poverty.

4) Is this just another way to insert private sector profiteering in the middle of public functions that don’t need them? For example, we’ve already seen Goldman Sachs forcing its way in on the revenue stream of the Massachusetts prison system to do something the state could do and, in doing so, taking away money the state could be re-investing to help more ex-convicts stay out of prison.
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