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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Harkin committed to reforming student loans

In his latest e-mail blast to constituents, Senator Tom Harkin touches on his priorities as the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. One point he mentioned hasn’t been on my radar screen this year:

The full agenda of the Committee will focus on reforming federal student loan programs so that we can stop subsidizing private banks and instead focus on loans that the federal government can make more cheaply.  We can save $87 billion over 10 years in that effort, and use that money to increase Pell grants for low- and middle- income college bound students, and to fund other important education initiatives.  

I had forgotten about President Barack Obama’s effort to reform the student loan system:

His plan is to do away with a system in which the Federal Government subsidizes banks and other private finance companies like Sallie Mae to lend money to students. The Administration essentially wants to cut such companies out of the game and run the system itself. Democrats claim the move will save $87 billion over 10 years, which can be used for a laundry list of education priorities, including increasing the maximum amount of Pell Grants, expanding Perkins Loans and investing in community colleges and other programs. […]

Educational institutions currently have two ways to offer federal loans to students. In the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL, pronounced “fell”) program, the government pays subsidies to banks and lenders to dole out money to borrowers and reimburses companies up to 97% of the cost of any loan that is not paid back. The second way is the direct-loan program, created in 1993 as an alternate option, in which the government cuts out the middle man, lends money directly and gets all the profits. If the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) passes both houses of Congress, the approximately 4,500 colleges and universities that are currently signed up for FFEL will have to abandon the program and start using the direct-loan option by July 1, 2010.

Directing federal money toward programs that help needy students, such as Pell Grants, makes a lot more sense than subsidizing private banks to make student loans.

Finding 60 votes in the Senate for this proposal will be challenging, however. This is one banking bailout Republicans will fight hard to protect, and according to Time magazine, at least one Democrat (Ben Nelson of Nebraska) opposes the plan too. If this bill passes, it will probably be through the budget reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes in the Senate.

Health care reform is sure to take up a lot of Harkin’s time this fall, but I’m glad the HELP chairman will also focus on other bills that could change many lives for the better. Even if the health care project falls apart in the Senate, Harkin could accomplish a lot this year if he gets the student loan bill through and brokers a good compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act.

I see only one downside to Harkin becoming the HELP chairman, and that’s Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas taking over the Agriculture Committee. Jill Richardson has been on this case at La Vida Locavore. I recommend reading her posts on industry lobbyists who used to work for Lincoln, Lincoln’s strong support for corporate ag interests such as Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, and Lincoln’s positions on trade, the climate change bill, and the Clean Water Act.

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Harkin had the votes to pass Employee Free Choice Act

I mentioned on Labor Day that I haven’t heard much lately about Senator Tom Harkin’s efforts to reach a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act. The EFCA is one of the top legislative priorities for organized labor and needs 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster. Several Democrats who supported the bill in 2007, knowing that President Bush would veto it, either oppose the bill or have dodged the question this year.

Harkin has been the lead Senate negotiator on EFCA and is replacing the late Senator Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Speaking to the American Rights at Work group yesterday, Harkin said he had 60 votes lined up behind a compromise this summer:

“As of July, I can tell you this openly and I know the press is all here but we had worked out a pretty good agreement. […]”

Harkin said prominent labor leaders were on board with the deal, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

“That’s when we needed 60 votes and that’s when I called to get Sen. Kennedy down because we needed him for three days. That’s when Dr. [Lawrence] Horowitz told me that he couldn’t make it,” Harkin said.

The Hill’s Kevin Bogardus reported that Harkin refused to specify the terms of the compromise deal:

“I will not say because it was closely held, it never leaked out and it still hasn’t,” Harkin said. “I took it off the front-burner and put it on the back-burner so it is still on warm, OK?”

In May Harkin suggested that the “card check” provision might be dropped from the bill in favor of other changes to labor election procedures. He did not say anything about binding arbitration, which is also an important part of the EFCA.

If Massachusetts law is changed to allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a temporary replacement for Kennedy, then Harkin may be able to revive this compromise and pass the EFCA this fall. Democratic leaders in the House agreed earlier this year not to bring the EFCA up for a vote until the measure had passed the Senate. Getting the bill through the House should not be difficult, even if a substantial number of Blue Dog Democrats vote no.

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Labor Day links and events coming up this week

Hope you’ve been enjoying the perfect Iowa weather during this holiday weekend. The U.S. Department of Labor and Blog for Iowa provide background on the history of Labor Day.

Organized labor doesn’t have a lot to celebrate right now, with more job losses in the manufacturing sector and unemployment rising across the country (though Iowa’s unemployment rate is significantly lower than the national average). The Iowa Policy Project finds that “the state of working Iowa” is not good. As in the previous recession, we are losing jobs with good benefits as wages stagnate for the people who still have jobs. We now rank 32nd in terms of median wages, and lower incomes mean less money for consumers to spend at other businesses. Click here for the full report, which also explains that “policy makers could do more to make work pay for low- and moderate-income working families and to insist upon job-quality requirements in economic development strategies.”  

Iowa hasn’t adopted most of organized labor’s key legislative priorities in recent years, in part because of the “six-pack” of Iowa House Democrats that blocked those bills. On the plus side, Curt Hanson’s victory in the House district 90 special election means we haven’t lost any ground on this front. We only need to persuade one or two “six-pack members” (or defeat them in Democratic primaries) to find the 51st vote for “prevailing wage,” for instance.

I haven’t heard much lately about Senator Tom Harkin’s efforts to find a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act. Getting 60 votes in the Senate for anything meaningful is likely to be quite difficult. The Service Employees International Union has some news related to the EFCA here.

Two years ago I attended the Solidarity Fest Labor Day celebration in Des Moines, featuring John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. The same event, sponsored by the South Central Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, takes place today in the 4-H building at the State Fairgrounds from noon to 2 pm. Later today, the Friends of Iowa Midwives are having a family-friendly potluck picnic at Raccoon River park in West Des Moines (4 to 8 pm, suggested donation $5).

After the jump I’ve posted details for lots of other events coming up this week.

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Senator Franken making us proud already

The first bill Senator Al Franken co-sponsored after being sworn in yesterday was the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s a cause Paul Wellstone would have supported strongly. (Click here for background on the EFCA.)

The Hill reported yesterday,

As expected, Franken has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, Indian Affairs Committee and Aging Committee. He will also sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee once the panel finishes marking up the healthcare reform legislation.

I don’t understand the logic of making Franken wait until after the health care bill markup before joining the HELP Committee, but at least he will be there when the Employee Free Choice Act is debated.

Getting to 60 votes on the EFCA will be a challenge, but Senator Tom Harkin has been working on a compromise since March. He told Bloomberg News in May that the “card check” provision may have to be dropped from the EFCA in order to get the bill through the Senate. “Card check” means that workers could form a union if a majority sign a document stating that they would like to join a union. Harkin suggested that a compromise bill might incorporate other changes to the election process and procedures for forming a labor union.

In that interview, Harkin did not mention whether binding arbitration would be a part of a workable compromise. Some people consider binding arbitration provisions to be as important a part of the EFCA as card check.

Whatever compromise Harkin crafts, I’m glad to know that Franken will be a voice for strong labor reform on the HELP Committee. I can’t wait to go hear Franken keynote Harkin’s steak fry on September 13.

UPDATE: Harkin’s communications director Kate Cyrul told Iowa Independent that Harkin is still working on this bill and expects the EFCA to pass this year.

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