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

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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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.

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Cash for Clunkers ends, cash for appliances coming soon

The $3 billion “Cash for Clunkers” program officially ends today, having helped generate at least 625,000 new car sales. Representative Bruce Braley, a key advocate of the program, is holding an event this morning in Bettendorf with John McEleney, Chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, and Gary Thomas, President of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association.

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced that $300 million in stimulus money will go toward cash incentives for consumers to buy energy-efficient home appliances:

Beginning late this fall, the program authorizes rebates of $50 to $200 for purchases of high-efficiency household appliances. The money is part of the broader economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year. Program details will vary by state, and the Energy Dept. has set a deadline of Oct. 15 for states to file formal applications. The Energy Dept. expects the bulk of the $300 million to be awarded by the end of November. (Unlike the clunkers auto program, consumers won’t have to trade in their old appliances.)

“These rebates will help families make the transition to more efficient appliances, making purchases that will directly stimulate the economy,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement announcing the plan. Only appliances covered by the Energy Star seal will qualify. In 2008, about 55% of newly produced major household appliances met those standards, which are set by the Energy Dept. and Environmental Protection Agency.

Replacing old appliances can significantly reduce a household’s energy use and utility bills, so this seems like a good use of stimulus money. However, some analysts are skeptical that the new program will be as successful as “Cash for Clunkers”:

“The cash-for-clunkers (program) had a discernible value proposition for the consumer, because he knows how much his (clunker) is worth,” says [Sam] Darkatsh, the Raymond James analyst. “With appliances, there is no trade-in. You can walk into Home Depot and get a great deal on a home appliance any time you want one. Why would it drum up sales now?” Laura Champine, an analyst with Cowen & Co., agrees. “I’m not sure if it will be as powerful as cash for clunkers because there is something compelling about that $4,500 discount,” she says. “Also, a new car is more fun than a new dishwasher. So I’m not sure if it will be as much of a driver, but any driver is welcome right now.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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Cash for Clunkers gets $2 billion from stimulus funds

President Barack Obama signed a bill today allocating an additional $2 billion to the to the Car Allowance Rebate System, more commonly known as Cash for Clunkers. The money will come from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (the economic stimulus bill approved in February). The Senate approved the bill by a 60-37 vote on Thursday night. Senator Tom Harkin voted yes, and Senator Chuck Grassley, who criticized the program earlier this week, voted no.

I liked Harkin’s idea to put income limits on this program, but the Senate wanted to get this measure passed before the summer recess. If the Senate had approved a different bill from what cleared the House last week, the funding would have been delayed until September.

The Senate vote went mostly along party lines, but four Democrats joined 33 Republicans in voting no, and seven Republicans joined 53 Democrats in voting yes.

I’m pleased to learn that most consumers who have taken advantage of this program have traded in a “clunker” for cars that get significantly better mileage. (Click here for lists of the most popular vehicles traded in and the most popular purchased with Cash for Clunkers vouchers.) The way Congress wrote the bill, people could have traded in SUVs and trucks for similar vehicles with only minimal improvements in fuel economy.

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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.

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