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George Curry

'Nuclear Option' Launched Against Intransigent Republicans

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(NNPA) After repeated Republican obstruction, Senate Democrats boldly stood up to Republicans by pulling the trigger on the nuclear option, a parliamentary maneuver that means most executive branch nominees now can be approved by a simple majority rather than the 60-vote supermajority in effect throughout President Obama’s term.

Although Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate, Republicans had been able to block many of President Obama’s court nominees and appointments by requiring a supermajority for confirmation. Now, however, senators can no longer filibuster nominees to executive branch posts or the courts, with the exception of the Supreme Court. Legislation can still be filibustered as well as other Senate actions.

More than 10 percent of federal judgeships are vacant. The number considered “judicial emergencies” has increased by 85 percent since President Obama assumed office in 2009, according to a report issued in October by Alliance for Justice, (AFJ), a federation of more than 100 organizations devoted to making sure the federal judiciary advances core constitutional values, preserves human rights and unfettered access to the courts, and adheres to the even-handed administration of justice for all Americans.

“Our data show that the overwhelming majority of the blame for this crisis rests squarely with Senate Republicans,” said AFJ President Nan Aron. “Where there still aren’t nominees, it’s usually because Republican Senators are refusing to recommend qualified candidates to fill vacancies in their home states. And where there already are nominees, Republicans continue their unprecedented ‘obstruction of justice’ by continuing to stall those nominees.”

According to the report, 90 percent of all current vacancies without a nominee are in states with at least one Republican Senator. Fifty-one percent are in states with two Republican Senators.

“That’s no coincidence,” Aron explained. “Republicans have cynically abused Senate tradition and refused to approve proposed nominees in their home states. Without that approval – which requires returning a ‘blue slip’ – the Senate Judiciary Committee won’t hold a hearing on a nominee. Then these same Republicans turn around and blame the president for not nominating anyone to fill the vacancy.”

The opposition to President Obama is unprecedented.

“Before Obama, 20 executive branch nominees were filibustered. Under Obama, 16 have been filibustered,” the Washington Post noted. “… If current trends continue, they note, it’s entirely possible Obama could end up seeing more of his executive-branch nominees filibustered than every other president in history combined.”

The Alliance for Justice report found, “President Obama’s nominations have brought near parity between Democratic-appointed judges and Republican-appointed judges. Since the end of the Bush Administration, the percentage of Republican-appointed circuit court judges dropped from 61.3% to 49.1%, and the percentage of Republican-appointed district court judges dropped from 58.6% to 50.3%.” It explained, “The president has appointed the highest percentage of women (42%) and minorities (38%) in history.”

Republicans are needlessly stalling the nominations. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell conceded, Obama’s nominee to become Secretary of Energy was eventually approved, 97-0; Secretary of Interior, 87-11, Secretary of Treasury, 71-26, Secretary of Commerce, 97-1, and Secretary of Transportation, 100-0.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a speech, “That’s the whole point. They don’t have anything. There’s nothing wrong with these people. There’s nothing wrong with their qualifications. They [Republicans] simply want to stall what goes on.”

If Republicans could have their way, they would stall until the next president is elected, hoping that person will be a Republican.

The breaking point came when Senate Republicans blocked three nominees – Patricia Millett, Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins – to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which reviews many actions taken by the executive branch and is considered the second most powerful court in the nation. All three are imminently qualified and emerged from committee hearings unblemished.

Finally, Democrats went nuclear. Now, confirmation should be easier for Obama’s appointments to head the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Housing Finance Agency and other agencies.

In addition, the change gives Obama a better chance of making progress on issues he listed in his inaugural speech, including immigration reform, climate change, income inequity and gun violence.

However, this will not mark the end of Congressional gridlock. House Republicans appear to be still captive of the ultra-conservative Tea Party and their counterparts in the Senate are still intent on opposing Obama’s initiatives.

Even with the nuclear option, GOP Senators plan to actively oppose President Obama. That’s fine, but at least the minority will no longer be able to thwart the will of the majority.

Some Republicans say the latest move will make them less inclined to cooperate with Democrats. It’s hard to imagine bipartisanship being much lower than it is. This “do nothing” Congress has enacted only 49 laws, the fewest since such records were first kept in 1947.

And some Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, say they will change even more rules once they regain the majority. Majority rule is all Senate Democrats were seeking. They had been bullied long enough by the radical minority.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Republicans' Crocodile Tears over Health Care

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(NNPA) Republicans have no shame. After House Republicans voted more than 40 times to block implementation of what they derisively call Obamacare, they have the temerity to complain that the Obama administration flubbed the Oct. 1 rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Fred Upton (R-Mich,), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who voted against the Affordable Care Act, held a hearing on “the failures and issues surrounding the implementation of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (PPACA) health insurance exchanges.”

Do Republicans who were willing to shut down the federal government because they couldn’t repeal the ACA want us to believe they honestly care about why the health care program had problems during its initial rollout?

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) isn’t buying it.

He said, “For the last few years my Republican friends have called the Affordable Care Act a ‘job killer,’ a ‘threat to liberty,’ and that it would ‘pull the plug on Grandma.’ They have said things like ‘We have to do everything in our power to prevent Obamacare,’ and ‘Obamacare. Get rid of it. Period.’

“All of the sudden, our friends on the other side of the aisle have forgotten this, and are now focused on the successful implementation of the law and the problems it faces. This is encouraging, and I hope this is a sign that we can work together on this critical issue.”

Don’t hold your breath.

While acknowledging that his administration “fumbled” the ball when it came to the Oct. 1 rollout, President Obama has become a serial apologist. He has personally accepted the blame when, in fact, few are asking where was Chief of Staff Denis McDonough during all of this. His primary job is to protect the president and he, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, failed miserably.

If the White House staff had studied the rollout of Romneycare in Massachusetts, they would have discovered that it, too, had a shaky start, getting only 123 signups in the first month; 2,289 after two months and 36,167 after 11 months. Yet, Mitt Romney, America’s Biggest Looser, has the gall to criticize the federal health law that was patterned after the one he proudly signed and later tried to disavow.

Friendly fire has come from Bill Clinton, the man who temporarily lost his Arkansas bar license for lying about having sex with a White House intern. He’s in no position lecture President Obama and anyone else about keeping their word to Americans.

Furthermore, Obama did what Clinton attempted and failed – he got health care reform legislation passed by Congress.

It was certainly needed.

According to a report by the Commonwealth Fund, “As previous studies have shown, health care spending in the U.S. dwarfs that found in any other industrialized country. In 2009, U.S. spending reached nearly $8,000 per capita. The other study countries spent between one-third (Japan and New Zealand) and two-thirds (Switzerland and Norway) as much.”

A press release accompanying the study noted, “There were 2.4 physicians per 1,000 population in the U.S. in 2009, fewer than in all the countries in the study except Japan. The U.S. also had the fewest doctor consultations (3.9 per capita) of any country except Sweden. Relative to the other countries in the study, the U.S also had few hospital beds, short lengths of stay for acute care, and few hospital discharges per 1,000 population. On the other hand, U.S. hospital stays were far more expensive than those in other countries – more than $18,000 per discharge. By comparison, the cost per discharge in Canada was about $13,000, while in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Germany it was less than $10,000.”

It added, “Prices for the 30 most commonly used prescription drugs were a third higher in the U.S. compared to Canada and Germany, and more than double the amount paid for the same drugs in Australia, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.”

The new law will give Blacks more access to health care.

A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, titled, “Health Coverage for the Black Population Today and Under the Affordable Care Act,” found: “Nationwide, just over one in five (21%) of Blacks do not have health insurance. However, the likelihood of being uninsured varies widely across states, ranging from 9 percent of Blacks in Delaware to 30 percent in Louisiana. Uninsured rates for nonelderly Blacks are particularly high in the South. The largest uninsured nonelderly Black populations reside in Florida (718,800), Texas (613,100), and Georgia (594,600). In addition, Blacks comprise a large share of the uninsured population in the District of Columbia (52%), Mississippi (48%), and Louisiana (42%).”

As much as Obama, in his words, fumbled the ball, there is no reason to forfeit the game, especially in the first quarter.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

Time to Raise Minimum Wage

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(NNPA) The first federal minimum wage of 25 cents an hour was established in 1938. Since then, it has been raised 22 times. It’s time to increase the floor for the 23rd time, from its current $7.25 to at least $10 an hour.

According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, the value of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. If the minimum wage had been indexed to the official Consumer Price Index each year, the minimum wage today would be $10.52. The last time the minimum wage was raised was in 2007, when it was raised from $5.15 to $7.25.

Still, there is resistance.

Republican leaders say raising the minimum wage will cost jobs. But opponents, such as Washington Post columnist Jared Bernstein, argue that rather than job loss, employers compensate by charging higher prices and increasing productivity.

Another common myth is that employers shouldn’t be forced to pay young people the minimum wage. But 88 percent of workers who would be affected by raising the minimum wage are at least 20 years old and a third are at least 40 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

EPI found that of the workers who would benefit from the raise:

* The average age of affected workers is 35 years old;

* 88 percent of all affected workers are at least 20 years old;

* 35.5 percent are at least 40 years old;

* 56 percent are women;

* 28 percent have children;

* 55 percent work full-time (35 hours per week or more);

* 44 percent have at least some college experience.

The federal minimum wage is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. There are approximately 3.6 million workers, or 4.7 percent of all hourly paid workers who are at or below the federal minimum wage of 7.25 an hour. Employers are allowed to pay students and the disabled – defined as those “whose earning or productivity is impaired by age, physical or mental deficiency, or injury” – less than the minimum wage. It also places limits on workers who derive part of their income from tips.

A study by the Congressional Research Service found that 40 percent of those earning the minimum wage or less work in “food preparation and serving related occupations.” It also discovered that 72.2 percent have at least a high school diploma and 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities testified before Congress in February: “I would note that over recent decades, the minimum wage has been allowed to erode and is now 20 percent lower, after adjusting for inflation, than in the late 1960s. For this and a number of other reasons (relating in part to globalization of the economy), wages for low-paid jobs have fallen.”

A fact sheet by Economic Policy Institute found, “A disproportionate share of minorities will benefit from a minimum wage increase. African Americans represent 11% of the total workforce, but are 18% of workers affected by an increase. Similarly, 14% of the total workforce is Hispanic, but Hispanics are 19% of workers affected by an increase.”

Washington State has the highest state minimum wage at $9.19, indexed to inflation. California enacted a law that will raise its minimum wage to $10 over three years. Some cities have wages that are even higher. The minimum wage is $10.55 in San Francisco. And in the recent election, New Jersey voters approve a constitutional amendment increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25.

Where city or state minimums exceed the federal standard, workers receive the higher wage.

The movement to increase the federal minimum wage has stalled in Congress. In March, the House voted 233 to 184 against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015, with all Republicans voting in the majority.

Two Democrats, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. George Miller of California have sponsored legislation, called the Fair Minimum Wage Act, to raise the federal minimum wage. The hope to overcome past opposition by adding some sweeteners for small businesses, including allowing them to deduct the full cost of equipment and expansion up to $500,000 in the first year.

In his State of the Union address in February, President Obama proposed a federal minimum wage of $9.

The EPI study stated. “When describing who would see a raise if the minimum wage were increased, it is important to look at everyone who earns between the current minimum wage and the proposed new one, as well as workers earning just above the new minimum wage (who would likely also see a small pay increase as employers move to preserve internal wage ladders). The typical worker who would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015 looks nothing like the part-time, teen stereotype: She is in her early thirties, works full-time, and may have a family to support.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

The Myth of a Federal Government Out of Control

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(NNPA) The Republican push to reduce the federal deficit solely through spending cuts is based on mythology rather than fact. That was clearly demonstrated by a series of reports issued recently by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

In a report issued Oct. 28, CBPP stated, “As a new budget conference committee seeks agreement on spending and tax priorities for the next decade, some policymakers and commentators who believe that future deficit reduction must come solely from spending cuts will likely repeat the claim that the federal government is exploding in size. The data do not support such a claim.

“To be sure, total federal spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) rose considerably in 2008 and 2009 and remained high in 2010 and 2011, in part because GDP was unusually low due to the Great Recession and its aftermath. But spending dropped significantly in 2012 as a share of GDP and, as the latest Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data indicates, this downward trend is expected to continue over the next five years.”

The report, titled “Size and Reach of Federal Government Are Not Exploding,” notes that those backing deep cuts in social programs neglect the real reasons for increased federal spending.

“While total federal spending will rise modestly as a percent of GDP during the latter part of the decade under a continuation of current policies, that is mostly because of a marked increase in interest payments,” the report stated. “In particular, as the economy recovers, interest rates will also rise, simultaneously increasing the interest we must pay on any given amount of debt.”

The study also found, “Under a continuation of current policies, total federal spending – including interest – will drop from 24.1 percent of GDP in 2011 and 22.8 percent in 2012 to 21.5 percent in 2013, before starting to rise in the middle of the coming decade, climbing back up to 22.7 percent by 2023. At least three-fourths of the increase between mid-decade and 2023, however, will come from higher interest payments on the debt. Interest payments are not a federal program, and increases in interest costs do not themselves represent an expansion of the government’s activities or reach. It should also be noted that interest costs rise when taxes are cut, because the tax cuts add to deficits and debt just as spending increases do.”

As I noted in this space last week, more than 90 percent of so-called entitlement benefits go to the elderly, disabled or working households. Furthermore, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed, increased spending on safety net programs because of the recession is both appropriate and temporary.

“Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections show that federal spending on low-income programs other than health care has started to decline and will fall substantially as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) as the economy recovers. By the end of the decade, it will fall below its average level as a percent of GDP over the prior 40 years, from 1973 to 2012. Since these programs are not rising as a percent of GDP, they do not contribute to our long-term fiscal problems,” CBPP said in a report titled, “Low-Income Programs Are Not Driving the Nation’s Long-Term Fiscal Problem.”

I am not suggesting there are not some serious financial questions facing the nation. The rising cost of Medicaid is among those concerns. But it’s important to know why costs will rise rather than using it as an excuse to cut social programs.

“To be sure, Medicaid is projected to rise significantly in cost, relative to GDP, for several reasons,” said the report on low-income programs. “To begin with, costs throughout the U.S. health care system – in both the public and private sectors – have been growing faster than GDP for several decades. Medicaid isn’t the cause of this systemwide cost growth; over the past decade, in fact, per-beneficiary costs have risen more slowly in Medicaid than under private insurance, a trend expected to continue over the next ten years.”

It also noted, “A second reason that Medicaid costs will rise faster than GDP is the aging of the population. Older people have much higher average health care costs than younger people. Elderly and disabled beneficiaries account for 24 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries but 64 percent of program costs. As the population ages, the number and share of Medicaid beneficiaries who are elderly will increase, raising program costs.

“Another reason that Medicaid costs will continue to rise significantly is the continued erosion of employer-based health coverage. Over time, the share of low-income people able to get coverage through their (or their families’) employers has fallen, so more of them have turned to Medicaid for coverage.”

Yes, the federal government needs to pay close attention to future spending and revenue. But not because spending is out of control or the safety net is bankrupting the country.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

‘Entitlement Programs' Serve Elderly and Poor

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(NNPA) Republicans have made it clear that their next budget goal is to slash so-called entitlement programs. Democrats have failed to explain to the public that the misnamed programs are valuable and prevent millions of Americans, many of them elderly or children, from living in poverty.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) issued a report last week that found: “Social Security benefits play a vital role in reducing poverty. Without Social Security, 22.2 million more Americans would be poor, according to the latest available Census data (for 2012). Although most of those whom Social Security keeps out of poverty are elderly, nearly a third are under age 65, including 1 million children. Depending on their design, reductions in Social Security benefits could significantly increase poverty, particularly among the elderly.”

The report explained, “Almost 90 percent of people aged 65 and older receive some of their family income from Social Security. Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line, all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do. These benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women – above the poverty line.”

Medicare has proven equally as effective. Yet, Republicans like to pretend that the U.S. is quickly moving toward an entitlement society.

However, CBPP issued a report last year titled, “Contrary to ‘Entitlement Society’ Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households.”

It stated, “More than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work. This figure has changed little in the past few years.”

It stated, “The claim behind these critiques is clear: federal spending on entitlements and other mandatory programs through which individuals receive benefits is promoting laziness, creating a dependent class of Americans who are losing the desire to work and would rather collect government benefits than find a job.

“Such beliefs are starkly at odds with the basic facts regarding social programs, the analysis finds. Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.

“Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.”

The research also shatters another myth, the idea that entitlement programs shift resources for the middle class to the poor.

“The data show that the middle class receives approximately its proportionate share of benefits: in 2010, the middle 60 percent of the population received 58 percent of the entitlement benefits. The top 20 percent of the population received 10 percent of the benefits; the bottom 20 percent received 32 percent of the benefits. “

Even with a sluggish economy, Congress seems unwilling to support those on food stamps, now called SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Under the 2009 Recovery Act, recipients received a 13.6 percent temporary boost in benefits. However, that provision is set to expire on Nov. 1, resulting in a $80 a month loss for a family of four. That means SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in fiscal 2014.

Instead of continuing to help those in dire need, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okl.) introduced legislation in September cutting SNAP by at least $39 billion over the next decade.

To his credit, President Obama has suggested a more balanced approach, with cuts being matched by closing some of the loopholes for the wealthy.

According to the Tax Policy Center, the top fifth of the population receives 66 percent of tax-expenditure benefits, the middle 60 percent of the population receives a little more than 31 percent of tax-expenditure benefits, the bottom fifth receives just 2.8 percent of tax-expenditure benefits and the top 1 percent of the population receives 23.9 percent of tax-expenditure benefits. And the report pointed out, “That’s more than eight times as much as the bottom fifth of the population, and nearly as much as the middle 60 percent of the population.”

It’s time for President Obama and Democratic leaders to show that they can stand up to Teapublicans more than once.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can abe reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.

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