Year in review: national politics in 2009 (part 1)

It took me a week longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished compiling links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage from last year. This post and part 2, coming later today, include stories on national politics, mostly relating to Congress and Barack Obama’s administration. Diaries reviewing Iowa politics in 2009 will come soon.

One thing struck me while compiling this post: on all of the House bills I covered here during 2009, Democrats Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack voted the same way. That was a big change from 2007 and 2008, when Blue Dog Boswell voted with Republicans and against the majority of the Democratic caucus on many key bills.

No federal policy issue inspired more posts last year than health care reform. Rereading my earlier, guardedly hopeful pieces was depressing in light of the mess the health care reform bill has become. I was never optimistic about getting a strong public health insurance option through Congress, but I thought we had a chance to pass a very good bill. If I had anticipated the magnitude of the Democratic sellout on so many aspects of reform in addition to the public option, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours writing about this issue. I can’t say I wasn’t warned (and warned), though.

Links to stories from January through June 2009 are after the jump. Any thoughts about last year’s political events are welcome in this thread.

Continue Reading...

Congress may extend "Cash for Clunkers" program

Huge consumer demand quickly exhausted the $1 billion in federal funds allocated to the “Cash for Clunkers” program that provides $3,500 or $4,500 vouchers to some consumers who trade in old vehicles for newer models. An estimated 250,000 Americans have taken advantage of the program already, prompting the U.S. House to vote on Friday for an additional $2 billion to extend it. All five Iowans in the House voted to fund “Cash for Clunkers” in June, but Representative Steve King (IA-05) voted no on the extra $2 billion.

Although the White House would like to extend this program, Reuters reported that the bill may run into trouble in the Senate:

One member can block a bill in the Senate and there are different interests that could pose a challenge. For instance, Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman said he opposes the House proposal because it calls for spending unused Energy Department loan guarantees on the program.

Environmental champions in the Senate have urged members to strengthen requirements in the bill for fuel efficiency and pollution control.

Energy analysts played down the impact the program would have on reducing gasoline consumption.

Conservative budget hawks could also draw the line on more help for an industry that has already received tens of billions in federal assistance.

In an ideal world, I would have liked to see “Cash for Clunkers” structured somewhat differently, but there is no question that this program has helped many people and given a slight boost to the economy. Even if the Senate does not approve the additional $2 billion, car dealers’ incentives that copy the “Cash for Clunkers” approach may continue to stimulate new car purchases.

Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) was one of the key House sponsors of this bill, and its popularity will probably help him if he ever runs for statewide office. People who bought new cars they otherwise could not have afforded are going to remember that for a long time.

I noticed that Congressman Leonard Boswell (IA-03) is holding a public event to discuss “Cash for Clunkers” on August 4 (Stew Hansen Dodge City Jeep on Hickman in Urbandale, 9 am).

Share any thoughts about this program or stories about people who have benefited from it in this thread.

Continue Reading...

Braley's "Cash for Clunkers" bill clears House

A bill to encourage consumers to purchase new and more fuel-efficient vehicles, co-sponsored by Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01), passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday by a wide margin of 298 to 119, with two members voting “present.”

The roll call shows 59 yes votes from Republicans, including Iowa’s Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05). Leonard Boswell (IA-03) also voted for the bill. Braley and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) were not present for the roll call, but it’s safe to assume that Loebsack would have voted for it, since only a handful of the most conservative House Democrats voted no.

Braley said in a statement,

“The passage of Cash for Clunkers legislation will help boost our economy, save families money, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Braley said.  “Cash for Clunkers is a common-sense idea that can have a big impact on the economy, reducing emissions and saving American jobs by jumpstarting the auto industry.  I hope the passage of this bill today is a sign that this program will start benefiting families and American workers as soon as possible.”

In my opinion, this bill has much more potential to spur new car purchases and save jobs than it does to reduce emissions or our dependence on foreign oil. The increased fuel-efficiency requirements are quite modest (presumably because American car manufacturers have done a poor job of increasing fuel efficiency).

The original draft of the bill set more ambitious mileage requirements, but that changed during negotiations over the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill, to which this measure was attached:

The compromise also waters down the so-called cash-for-clunkers program*, which ostensibly encourages drivers to turn in their gas guzzlers in exchange for a federal subsidy on more fuel efficient models. Yet under the compromise proposal, the new fuel efficiencies are hardly dramatic. For example, drivers trading in trucks between 6,000 and 8,500 pounds would be eligible for a $3,500 voucher for purchasing the same-sized vehicle that’s more efficient by just 1 mile per gallon.

Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said the program does much more to help struggling automakers sell large, unpopular models than it does to reduce greenhouse emissions.

“It’s a $4 billion giveaway to move gas guzzling vehicles that nobody wants off the lots,” Becker said.

After the jump I’ve posted the press release from Braley’s office and the information from an accompanying fact sheet on how this bill would work.

Continue Reading...

Grassley likes Obama's double standard on bailout recipients

Like a lot of Democrats, I’m not happy with President Barack Obama’s double standard on bailouts. If you’re a Wall Street financial giant, the federal government will shovel tens or hundreds of billions of dollars your way, without demanding basic accountability. The executives who ran those firms into the ground aren’t fired, and they even get their inflated bonuses because (according to the White House) there’s nothing they can do about bonuses that were promised in contracts.

Meanwhile, automobile manufacturers who asked the federal government for loans in December got a long list of strings attached. Now President Obama has made sure General Motors’ CEO got the boot and wants Chrysler to merge with a foreign company. Even then, the White House is indicating that GM and Chrysler may be headed for bankruptcy. If that happens, you can be sure that the United Auto Workers will be forced to accept huge concessions. Apparently what middle-class UAW members were promised in contracts is less important than the million-dollar bonuses AIG executives were promised.

David Sirota thinks Obama’s approach is reviving the tactics of Reaganism:

Reagan famously backed a massive increase in the defense budget and corporate welfare while pretending to be a budget hawk by bemoaning the supposed wastefulness of programs like welfare – programs whose expenditures were tiny in comparison to those on the Pentagon and corporate welfare.

Likewise, we’ve seen Obama support giving away hundreds of billions of dollars – no strings attached – to Wall Street banks while simultaneously presenting himself as getting tough on Corporate America with his promise to hold the auto industry accountable for its failures. Of course, the automakers are asking for a tiny fraction of what Wall Street has already gotten.

Look who loves Obama’s Reaganesque approach: Senator Chuck Grassley.

Grassley says it’s an issue of letting capitalism run its course. Grassley says, “When the government is intervening to make that point, it appears to a lot of people to appear to be a government running a private corporation and is that good? That’s the questions that are raised.” Based on the latest actions, analysts believe G-M and Chrysler will surely face bankruptcy, a merger or both.

Grassley says that’s the way the system works. “It’s a balancing act between being good trustees of the taxpayers’ money when it’s given to corporations like General Motors and the extent to which you rely just simply upon the company to make the decision.”

That’s classic Grassley–upset over the prospect of some money going to manufacturers but content to let the Troubled Assets Relief Program of the Wall Street bailout consume trillions. Hey, it’s just how the system works. Will the Iowa media call out Iowa’s senior senator on this hypocrisy? Don’t count on it.

Continue Reading...

Nine Predictions for 2009

(The 2008 Bleeding Heartland election prediction champion gets out the crystal ball for the year to come... - promoted by desmoinesdem)

My apologies for not getting this in closer to the actual new year, but you could say that “a day late and a dollar short” has been the theme of the new year so far for me. Or five days short, as the case may be.

In any case, before we start the new political year for real, I thought it might be fun to share our predictions for the new year. Here are nine predictions of mine for two thousand and nine.

1. The state budget is in far worse shape then we think. Expect the fight over the budget to get ugly, quick.

The Iowa state fiscal year runs from July 1 2008 to June 30 2009–right in the heart of the economic meltdown. Given that the estimates for this period are just starting to come in, it's reasonable to assume that the stories we're currently hearing about the “budget crisis” represent only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Likewise, the 1.5% across-the-board cut currently proposed by Gov. Culver isn't going to be nearly enough to solve the crisis. It's going to get ugly and fast.

2. Unemployment will hit 10% by the end of 2009, and recovery will not come until early 2010.

Call me a pessimist, but I think things are going to get much worse before they get better. When you combine the potential failure of the Big 3 (a still unresolved issue, by the way), plus a global manufacturing slowdown, with the fact that up to 25% of retail stores may declare bankrupcy in the next year–you have the recipie for unmitigated economic disaster.  

To complicate matters, I do not expect President Obama's recovery measures to be passed before May of this year. (There are already signs that a long battle is ahead for this bill.) That means that many of the infrastructure projects given funds through the program will miss out on the summer construction window–meaning they likely won't start until Summer 2010. Many other measures, like tax cuts or social programs won't go into effect until 2010 as well…moving the light at the end of the tunnel further and further away.

3. The Big 3 will not survive in their current form. Get ready for the Big 2.

Regardless of whether the auto bailout was the correct move at the time, by the time the big ball drops in 2010–there will no longer be a Big 3 as we know them now. My best guess is that one of the Big 3 automakers (most likely Chrysler) will implode into disorganized bankrupcy. No buyer will be found, and the brand will simply cease to exist. This will spark a crisis that will either lead to the organized bankrupcy/restructuring of the other companies, or government assistance with severe Bob Corker style conditions. 

The good news is that out of the multitude of laid-off engineers and designers, we could see new  and innovative technologies, designs, and companies form. By 2020 we could all be driving solar hybrids designed and built by ex-Big 3 designers who started their own companies.

6. The Supreme Court will rule in favor of same-sex marriage in the case of Varnum v. Brien.

Beware the ides of March rings true in Iowa in 2009. Expect a ruling on the case of Varnum v. Brien to come down with a rulings for several other cases on March 13, the conclusion of the Court's March session. When that happens expect a whirlwind of craziness to descend on the state: national media, a rush of spring weddings, celebrity attention, half-cocked legal challenges, right-wing rants, Fred Phelps-ian protests, legislative blustering, Steve Deace's head exploding, and who knows what else.

I don't think the moon turning to blood, the dead walking the streets, or any other Pat Robertson-style pronouncements will come true…but expect a wild ride.

5. The Republican candidate for Governor will be a serious contender who already holds a major elected office.

The current fight over the RPI chair has a definite and familiar theme: change. Old hacks are out, new hacks are in. While there is a faction of the GOP that clings to BVP like life preserver, the majority of the party is, I think, waiting for someone new to come along.

That someone is either State Auditor David Vaudt, Sec. of Agriculture Bill Northey, or 4th District Congressman Tom Latham.

Vaudt looks to emerge as one of the main faces of opposition to Culver on budget issues, a position he could use to slingshot him to the governorship. Northey is the darling of the Republican Party and, with agricultural issues on the back-burner this year and little to do, may find the Governor's race an attractive prospect. Latham, by all measures a low-importance member of the minority party might decide that its now or never for him. And he has nothing to lose: if he wins, he's the Governor; if he loses, he can run again as the elder-statesman in the dogfight that will be the new 3rd district.

Continue Reading...

Now that is a great idea

From Daily Kos user rok for dean:

In 1950, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO was less than 30 times that of an average U.S. worker; by 1980, prior to the “Reagan Revolution,” the average pay of the S&P 500 CEO was approximately 50 times higher than that of an average U.S worker.  But by 2007, the average pay of an S&P 500 CEO had soared to more than 350 times as much as that of an average U.S. worker.

This is both immoral and unsustainable in a democracy.  By way of comparison, in Europe, an average CEO only makes 22 times as much as an average worker, and in Japan, only 17 times as much.

If America wants to be competitive again, we need to reduce CEO pay to a level comparable to CEO pay in Europe and Japan.  I know exactly how to accomplish this feat.  The [United Auto Workers] should agree to immediately lower U.S. union worker pay to a level equal to the level paid by their non-union, non-American competitors.  In return, auto CEO’s must agree to permanently lower their compensation to only 20 times that of an average union worker.

Sounds fair to me. How many Republicans who’ve been beating the war drums about excessively generous pay to union workers would agree to those terms?

It’s true that union workers get paid more than non-union workers (though strong unions are associated with higher average wages even for non-union workers in the same area). But in a country where two-thirds of our gross domestic product depends on consumer spending, higher wages are not a bad thing.

In any event, unions are not primarily to blame for the auto industry’s current problems. Toyota is about to post its first operating loss in 70 years despite having an entirely non-union workforce. The tough economy has diminished demand for new cars.

American automakers also have to bear the burden of our broken employer-based health insurance system, but that’s a topic for another diary.

The same Republicans who claim they’d never raise taxes on Americans are only too happy to slash the wages of middle-class auto workers. As rok for dean says, let’s call their bluff and see if they would be willing to tie executive pay to a reasonable multiple of the average worker’s salary in the company.

Side note: my dad was a Republican, but it really bothered him when corporate executives would receive exorbitant salaries and bonuses even as they were driving their companies into the ground. Rewarding good performance is one thing, but paying incompetent managers obscenely high salaries is another.  

Continue Reading...
View More...