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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Solis (finally) confirmed as Labor Secretary

Senate Republicans finally gave up on obstructing Hilda Solis’ nomination as Secretary of Labor today, and the Senate easily confirmed her by an 80 to 17 vote. Chuck Grassley was among the 24 Republicans who voted to confirm Solis. Tom Harkin did not vote but clearly would have voted yes, along with all the other Democrats, had he been in the chamber.

Solis’ confirmation was tied up for weeks in committee after Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming put an anonymous hold on her nomination. Today even he voted yes, indicating that he had no solid grounds for blocking her from serving in the cabinet. I suspect Enzi was just trying to see whether he could trick Barack Obama into withdrawing her nomination as a gesture to Republicans.

Solis’s staunch longtime support for organized labor will make her a target for the right-wing noise machine, but who cares?

For more on why Solis is one of Obama’s best appointments so far, read this piece by Meteor Blades and this one by Paul Rosenberg, who notes,

People just loved talking about what a great political leader Hilda Solis is. I didn’t have nearly enough room to include all the good stuff that was said.

Calitics takes a first stab at handicapping the special election in California’s 32nd district, which Solis is vacating. It’s a safe Democratic seat but will have a competitive primary.

Obama has two cabinet positions left to fill. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius appears to be the leading candidate for Health and Human Services now, and former Washington Governor Gary Locke is reportedly Obama’s pick for Commerce.  

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News flash: personnel shape policy

When Barack Obama nominated Timothy Geithner for Treasury Secretary and appointed Larry Summers to be the chief presidential economics adviser, I became very worried. Summers had a hand in some of Bill Clinton’s deregulation policies that have contributed to our current economic problems, and Geithner was a key architect of the Wall Street bailout last fall.

Here and at other blogs, some commenters urged me to “give Obama a chance–he hasn’t even been inaugurated yet.”

Geithner confirmed my worst fears today when he rolled out the new-and-improved bailout plan (using the second $350 billion tranche from the Troubled Assets Relief Program). Economist James Galbraith came up with the name Bad Assets Relief Fund (BARF) to describe Geithner’s plan.

Other bloggers have already explained why Geithner’s proposal is an unimaginably pricey gift to Wall Street bankers at the expense of the public interest. This diary by MyDD user bobswern hits all the main points, drawing on a front-page story in the New York Times and other sources.

Writing about how Geithner prevailed over presidential advisers like David Axelrod, who wanted to attach more strings to the taxpayer money Wall Street bankers would receive, David Sirota observed,

Interestingly, the divide inside the administration seems to hearken back to a divide discussed very early on in the formation of the administration – the one whereby progressives were put in strictly political positions, and zombie conservatives were put in the policymaking positions. In this case, more progressive politicos like Axelrod was overruled by corporate cronies like Geithner.

The good news is that at least there seems to be something of a debate inside the administration, however tepid. The bad news is what I and others predicted: namely, that progressives seem to have been ghettoized into the political/salesmanship jobs, the conservative zombies shaping policy aren’t interested in having any debate with them. Worse, we’re now learning that those zombies are as rigidly ideological as their initial policies seemed to suggest.

I stand by my prediction that Geithner will turn out to be one of Barack Obama’s worst appointments. I can’t fathom why Obama wants to “own” the very worst aspects of the Bush administration’s failed Wall Street bailout, while also depriving the government of cash needed for other domestic priorities.

The stock market fell sharply today, perhaps because investors have no confidence in Geithner’s scheme and perhaps because the compromise stimulus bill that passed the U.S. Senate came straight out of bizarro world (do click that link, you’ll enjoy it).

I hope Obama will recognize his mistake and let Geithner and Summers go within a year or so, but they’re already poised to do plenty of damage to his administration.

Speaking of bad appointments, isn’t it amazing that Obama didn’t even make Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire promise to vote for the stimulus bill in exchange for being named Commerce Secretary? Why would you put someone in a cabinet position with influence over economic policy if that person doesn’t even support the president’s stimulus plan?

Apparently Obama’s also considering making a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce the main presidential adviser on judicial appointments. I’ve long anticipated that judges appointed by Obama would be corporate-friendly, pro-choice moderates in the Stephen Breyer mode, but I never imagined that a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist would be in a position to recommend only judges who would favor business interests.

If Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen becomes Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Obama-Biden magnet is coming off my car.

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Harkin likes Dean for Health and Human Services

Yesterday Marc Ambinder mentioned Senator Tom Harkin as a possible nominee for Health and Human Services secretary in Barack Obama’s cabinet. As much as I agree with Harkin’s views on health care, I would hate to lose his voice in the Senate.

Huffington Post contacted Harkin, who praised the idea of nominating former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for the job:

“I think that would be a very good move,” Harkin told the Huffington Post. “He brings all the background and experience. He’s very strong on prevention and wellness, which I’m very strong on. I think he’d make an outstanding secretary of HHS.”

Asked if he had spoken to White House on the matter, Harkin demurred: “I’m not going to get into that,” he said after a pause.

You may recall that Harkin endorsed Dean for president shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses. I like Dean and his views on health care, but I fear that he is not necessarily the best person to bring Democrats in Congress along with a comprehensive health care reform package.

I had to laugh at this paragraph in the Huffington Post piece:

Whether this endorsement helps or hurts is a topic of debate. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Dean’s frosty relationship with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel will be the main impediment to his ending up at HHS. Others are concerned that a major netroots movement to appoint Dean will actually turn the White House off the notion. They don’t want it to seem like they are “bending to the demands of the left,” as one Democrat put it — not because they aren’t concerned with progressive priorities, but because the choice will be criticized as an effort in political pacification.

Heaven forbid Obama should appoint someone from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party! People might think he cares about left-leaning Democrats. Never mind that thousands of former Deaniacs became dedicated volunteers for Obama’s presidential campaign. Without people like them he never would have won the nomination.

Marc Ambinder reported yesterday that Congressman Raul Grijalva has urged Obama to appoint Dean. Grijalva is a leading figure in the House Progressive Caucus and was favored by more than 130 environmental organizations for Secretary of the Interior (a job Obama gave to conservative Democrat Ken Salazar).

According to Ambinder, Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee is “a top candidate.” Daily Kos diarist DrSteveB discussed some of the names being floated yesterday and explains why Bredesen would be “beyond awful.” After reading that diary, I’m ready to remove the Obama-Biden magnet from my car if Obama nominates Bredesen.

By the way, DrSteveB likes Dean but doesn’t think he’s a good fit for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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New level of scrutiny reveals more problems with Daschle

Update: On February 3 Daschle withdrew his nomination for secretary of Health and Human Services. It looks like he won’t be the “health care czar” in the White House either.

When Barack Obama announced plans to nominate Tom Daschle to run the Department of Health and Human Services, I agreed with Ezra Klein that the choice signaled Obama’s commitment to get comprehensive health care reform through Congress. I knew that Daschle’s wife was a longtime lobbyist, and that Daschle was not nearly as liberal as the right-wingers made him out to be. But we all know that the Senate will be the biggest obstacle to any good health care plan. Daschle knows that body’s procedures and the majority of its members extremely well.

The choice isn’t looking so good today.

Not paying taxes on the use of someone else’s limousine looks bad, but as we saw last week with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, failure to fully meet one’s tax obligations no longer seems to be a barrier to serving in the cabinet. (By the way, Daschle knew about this problem last summer but didn’t tell Obama’s vetting team.)

Many people might honestly not realize that if they use someone else’s car, they need to report the value of that service as taxable income. But what is Daschle’s excuse for overstating his tax-deductible charitable gifts and not reporting more than $83,000 in consulting income? If Bill Richardson was asked to step aside because of an investigation that hasn’t even proven wrongdoing, then Daschle should not get a pass for not paying his taxes.

As is so often the case in politics, though, what’s legal can be even more disturbing. From Politico:

Daschle made nearly $5.3 million in the last two years, records released Friday show, including $220,000 he received for giving speeches, many of them to outfits that stand to gain or lose millions of dollars from the work he would do once confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services.

For instance, the Health Industry Distributors Association plunked down $14,000 to land the former Senate Democratic leader in March 2008. The association, which represents medical products distributors, boasts on its website that Daschle met with it after he was nominated to discuss “the impact an Obama administration will have on the industry.”

This week, the group began openly lobbying him, sending him a letter urging him to rescind a rule requiring competitive bidding of Medicare contracts.

Another organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans, paid $20,000 for a Daschle speaking appearance in February 2007. It represents health insurance companies, which under Obama’s plan would be barred from denying coverage on the basis of health or age.

There was a $12,000 talk to GE Healthcare in August, a $20,000 lecture in January to Premier, Inc., a health care consulting firm, and a pair of $18,000 speeches this year to different hospital systems, among other paid appearances before health care groups.

The speaking fees were detailed in a financial disclosure statement released Friday, which showed that Daschle pulled down a total of more than $500,000 from the speaking circuit in the last two years, and $5.3 million in overall income.

These speaking engagements are legal, but it is an unacceptable conflict of interest for Daschle to have taken that much money from groups with a major financial stake in health care reform.

At Daily Kos nyceve examines one of those paid speeches and tells you why you should care: As UnitedHealth subsidiary Ingenix defrauded Americans, Daschle was its 2008 keynote speaker.

A lot of liberal bloggers are now calling for Obama to withdraw Daschle’s nomination and appoint Howard Dean to run HHS instead. As much as I like Dean, I do not think he’s the person to shepherd health care reform through Congress. But I agree that Obama needs to find a replacement for Daschle–the sooner, the better.

If Obama stands by Daschle, I suspect the Senate insiders’ club would confirm him, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Speaking of stalled confirmations, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming appears to be the Republican who is holding up Hilda Solis’s nomination for Secretary of Labor. This is purely ideological, based on Solis’ support for the Employee Free Choice Act. Solis has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Will Obama stand behind his choice for this cabinet position? The president expressed support for organized labor on Friday while signing executive orders to boost labor unions.  

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