More than 2.1 mln people signed up for new policies under the Affordable Care Act on state and federal marketplaces through December. More than 1.1 mln Americans signed up for insurance through the much-maligned federal health-care marketplace at HealthCare.gov during the initial enrollment period, which ended 12/24, the Obama administration announced. More than 975,000 enrolled in December, after glitches on the website were fixed. Roughly 850,000 people enrolled through state-run exchanges, the Washington Post reported. The Department of Health and Human Services had anticipated that 3.3 mln people would have signed up through December, but experts on health-care policy say the surge in December increases the possibility that the law could meet projections of 7 mln enrollments by the next deadline on 3/31, Sarah Kliff reported at WashingtonPost.com (12/30).
While the techies were fixing HealthCare.gov in October and November, more than 4.4 mln people signed up for expanded Medicaid coverage, Charles Gaba reported at ACASignups.net (1/6). With 2.17 mln signed up through the exchanges and 3.1 mln young people under age 26 who are covered by their parents’ plan, 9.74 mln have gained insurance because of the ACA.
The Medicaid expansion is “the biggest ACA success story that has not yet been told,” said Ron Pollack, head of Families USA, a nonpartisan health-care advocacy group, to Klein. And it could have been an even bigger success. Although the federal government foots 100% of the costs for the first three years, and 90% of the costs thereafter, about half the states have refused to expand Medicaid. If all states participated, more than 5 mln more low-income people would be eligible.
ONLY A FEW JUNK POLICY HOLDERS WILL LOSE HEALTH COVERAGE. A new report from the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has destroyed the Republican talking point that millions of people will lose their insurance coverage because of the shifting requirements on the health insurance exchanges, George Zornick noted at WashingtonPost.com (12/31). The minority report projects that only 10,000 people will lose coverage because of the Affordable Care Act and be unable to regain it — or in other words, 0.2% of the oft-cited 5 mln cancellations statistic.
The report starts with an assumption that 4.7 mln received cancellation notices about their 2013 plan. (Notably it doesn’t endorse that figure, just takes it on for the sake of argument.) But of those, who will get a new plan?
• According to the report, half of the 4.7 mln will have the option to renew their 2013 plans, thanks to an administrative fix this year.
• Of the remaining 2.35 mln individuals, 1.4 mln should be eligible for tax credits through the marketplaces or Medicaid, according to the report.
• Of the remaining 950,000 individuals, fewer than 10,000 people in 18 counties will lack access to an affordable catastrophic plan.
“This new report shows that people will get the health insurance coverage they need, contrary to the dire predictions of Republicans,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking committee member. “Millions of American families are already benefiting from the law.”
GOP BLOCKS HEALTH CARE ENROLLMENT. The GOP’s relentless assault on the Affordable Care Act has not succeeded in repealing or defunding the health reforms, but Republican state officials have managed to prevent a lot of uninsured Americans from getting health insurance, Dylan Scott noted at TalkingPointsMemo.com (1/6). Enrollment data collected by Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, showed that 14 states that fully cooperated with the Obama administration attained 42.9% of their Medicaid/SCHIP enrollments projected by Kaiser and 37.2% of health exchange enrollments projected by the Congressional Budget Office during the first three months, while the 23 states that refused to cooperate have seen enrollments of only 1.5% of their potential Medicaid/population if they had expanded it as originally planned and, as of 11/30, only 5.6% of exchange enrollments projected by CBO. (She didn’t have enrollment figures for the states using HealthCare.gov for December, when the White House said 975,000 people enrolled.)
“You go back to how the law was designed, for better or worse, it gave states a lot of responsibility,” Skocpol told TPM. “The states that have actually done things the way the law envisaged are the ones that are, at this early stage, doing the most toward those goals. But the ‘Just Say No’ states are putting all their lower income residents at risk,” she continued, “not just by refusing to expand Medicaid but also, in many cases, by failing to help people get subsidized private coverage through the exchange.”
HEALTH CARE GLITCHES NOT UNPRECEDENTED. Jon Perr noted at DailyKos.com (1/4) that eight years ago, “the calamitous launch of President [George W.] Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program left over 6 mln previously insured seniors without coverage. Hundreds of thousands more could not get their medications as problem-plagued government systems, confused insurers and undertrained pharmacists left subscribers panicked and helpless. But unlike today’s sabotage of the Affordable Care Act by Republicans in Congress and in the states, Democrats at all levels helped the Medicare Rx program whose design they opposed.”
By 1/16/06, the New York Times reported, about 20 states, including California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and all of New England, had announced that they would help low-income people by paying drug claims that should have been paid by the federal Medicare program. Among the governors taking action were future Obamacare foes Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota and Mike Huckabee, who declared a health emergency in his state of Arkansas.
The fiasco prompted the Bush administration to take drastic measures, as the Bush administration told insurers that they must provide a 30-day supply of any drug that a beneficiary was previously taking, and that poor people must not be charged more than $5 for a covered drug. But before Bush ordered insurers to “aid the ailing Medicare drug plan,” Walgreens, CVS and other national drugstore chains then as now announced they would fill prescriptions for customers unable to provide proof of their new coverage. Perr also noted that no state sued the Bush administration for acting without Congressional authorization when it required insurers to provide the emergency prescription coverage described above.
But despite the fact that even Republicans like John Boehner and Tim Pawlenty admitted President Bush’s rollout of Medicare Part D was “horrendous” and “awful,” Democrats did everything they could to save it. As then-Sen. Hillary Clinton described the effort to salvage a program she and most Democrats opposed as an unnecessarily expensive giveaway to private insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms, “I voted against it, but once it passed I certainly determined that I would try to do everything I could to make sure that New Yorkers understood it, could access it, and make the best of it.”
The result? Perr noted that the Medicare drug benefit that was even more unpopular than Obamacare now enjoys 90% support among America’s seniors.
“Republicans and their conservative amen corner appear to have forgotten that history, and not because they forgot to take their meds,” Perr concluded.
LA. CUTS HEALTH CARE FOR MUSICIANS. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who has blocked the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program that would have helped the working poor, also cut off funding to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic as of 1/1/14, Offbeat.com reported. Medicaid supports 70% of the clinic’s 2,500 patients but a letter released by Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias, who has received dialysis treatment for kidney failure since 2005, and the NOMC states that “because most New Orleans musicians earn less than $15,000 per year, [they] are classified as self-employed, working poor who fall into the ‘sacrifice zone’ (with just enough income to disqualify [them] for state health care assistance, but not enough to qualify for federal health care assistance in purchasing health insurance),”
Donations to help fill the void can be made via the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation website (www.nomaf.org). Offbeat’s John Swanson noted that Jindal is also responsible for the evisceration of the city’s music education programs, which are key elements in providing alternatives for young people to joining violent street gangs.
KOCH PACS RAISE $407M. A political network linked to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch raised at least $407 mln in the last election, almost matching Mitt Romney’s campaign funds. By comparison, the Koch network raised more than George W. Bush did in 2004, and outdid both presidential candidates in 2000, Rebecca Leber and Andrew Breiner noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/6).
According to an analysis from the Washington Post and Center for Responsive Politics, the 17 tax-exempt Koch groups shielded wealthy individuals from disclosing their donations, including the exact amount the two billionaires contribute. A vast amount came through two main groups with ties to Koch officials, which fed $302 mln to a wider network — Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, the American Energy Alliance, Heritage Action, among others.
The Koch network just about beat most campaign funding for the 2012 election, toppling Karl Rove’s $325 mln super PAC. And $407 mln is the “conservative estimate,” because eight groups haven’t yet filed their returns. Nonetheless, the Koch network met their pledge before the 2012 election to spend at least $400 mln to defeat the presidential incumbent. These funds represent a small fraction of the Koch brothers’ estimated $72 billion wealth.
Through this network, groups like Americans for Prosperity and other Koch affiliates fund campaigns to undermine Obamacare, the minimum wage, and clean energy and the environment. Ahead of the 2014 congressional midterms, AFP is already spending $2.5 mln on ads attacking the health care law.
COLO. POT SALES TOP $5M IN FIRST WEEK. Colorado marijuana dispensaries sold $5 mln worth of marijuana in the first week of legal recreational marijuana, with few problems cited, Matt Femer reported at HuffingtonPost.com (1/8).
Colorado, the first state to allow retail marijuana sales to adults age 21 and older, has projected nearly $600 mln in wholesale and retail sales annually. The state expects to collect nearly $70 mln in tax revenue from pot sales this year.
Denver’s 9News reported that statewide retail sales on New Year’s Day, the first day legal pot shops were allowed to operate, exceeded $1 mln. Interest dropped in the following days, but many shop owners reported customers still waiting in lines out the door.
Under state law, Colorado residents may legally buy up to 1 ounce of marijuana in a transaction. Tourists can purchase up to one-fourth ounce.
Smoking is not allowed in public, but Denver police had written only four citations for public consumption in the first week, Femer reported. Pueblo and Telluride reported no violations.
Some dispensers limited the amount of marijuana an individual could buy or raised prices to prevent a legal weed shortage.
Some buyers complained that prices were higher than they were used to, Russ Belville noted at HighTimes.com. One Twitter user was incredulous that retailers were charging $50, plus $14.25 in taxes, totaling $64.25 for an eighth ounce. “You can keep your legalization if weed’s gonna cost $65/8th!” Others noted the prices for the same strain of marijuana in their local medical marijuana dispensary ranged from $20 to $40 an eighth.
On the other hand, some “tokers” in less-marijuana-tolerant parts of the country said the legal weed prices didn’t look like a bad deal. “$60 an eighth is what I pay here in Chicago,” one Facebooker wrote, “and that’s for a short bag of ‘what’s available’ bought on the street from a gang banger. I’d love to wait in line in the snow to have the selection, security and quality they’re getting in Colorado for about the same price!”
The Justice Department has said it won’t challenge legalization laws in Washington and Colorado as long as the state prevents out-of-state distribution, sales to minors and drugged driving, among other conditions.
Still, the federal prohibition means banks won’t accept marijuana businesses for traditional bank accounts, as bankers fear they could be implicated as money launderers, so the sales must be in cash, and retailers say they can’t take advantage of traditional business tax writeoffs.
Denver City Council has urged banking regulators to grant Colorado marijuana businesses access to the federal banking system, so they can use the same banking services as other businesses.
The Wall Street Journal reported (1/6) that the Department of Justice is drafting legal guidelines on how banks can work with approved marijuana businesses in states like Colorado and Washington, which is planning to allow dispensaries to open this spring.
States where marijuana legalization drives are underway (all but New York already have legalized medical marijuana) include Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and Vermont.
From 2001 to 2010, there were over 8 mln marijuana arrests in the US, with 88% for possession, the American Civil Liberties Union reported in June 2013, based on FBI statistics. Marijuana arrests account for 52% of all drug arrests in the US. And a black person is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. States spent $3.6 bln enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, the ACLU estimated. The libertarian Cato Institute in 2010 reported that legalizing marijuana would save local, state and federal governments $8.7 bln, while taxation at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco could raise another $8.7 bln.
JPMORGAN CHASE STILL OK AFTER $1.7B FINE. To settle a barrage of government legal actions over the past year, JPMorgan Chase has agreed to penalties that now total $20 bln, Peter Eavis noted at Dealbook.NYTimes.com (1/7). The latest was a $1.7 bln penalty on the bank for failing to report Bernard Madoff’s suspicious activities to the authorities.
But don’t worry about JPMorgan, the banking giant whose shares are up 28% over the last 12 months. “Wall Street analysts estimate that it will earn as much as $23 bln in profit this year, more than any other lender. And JPMorgan’s investment bankers, who on average earned $217,000 in 2012, can look forward to another lush payday as bonus season approaches. ‘The fines have been manageable in the context of the bank’s earnings capacity,’ Jason Goldberg, a bank analyst at Barclays, said. ‘It makes $25 bln in revenue per quarter and has record capital.’” Goldberg estimates that, as of last year’s third quarter, JPMorgan had injected $28 bln into its legal reserves since the end of 2009, so most observers think it can cover any remaining settlements.
Charles Pierce noted at Esquire.com (1/8), “The obvious solution, of course, is to break these big bastards up and re-regulate them along the lines proposed by Senator Professor [Elizabeth] Warren [D-Mass.]. Otherwise, the golden fleecing of the American economy goes on and on.”
MAINE GOV. FINDS LITTLE WELFARE FRAUD—BUT THAT WON’T STOP HIM. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) released data (1/7) on purchases made with state welfare benefits over nearly 3 years that he claimed exposed abuse, but they only add up to much less than 1% of all benefit transactions.
The data show more than 3,000 transactions at bars, sports bars, and strip clubs made with EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards loaded with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare) and food stamp benefits between 1/1/11 and 11/15/013. The state doesn’t track what was actually purchased, and some transactions can be withdrawals from ATMs at those locations. Given that there are about 50,000 of these transactions every month, or nearly 1.8 mln in that time frame, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesman told the Bangor Daily News, they only make up “about two-tenths of 1% of total purchases and ATM withdrawals,” the paper calculates.
LePage still expressed outrage at this tiny fraction of purchases. “This information is eye-opening and indicates a larger problem than initially thought,” he wrote when the data was released. “These benefits are supposed to help families, children and our most vulnerable Mainers. Instead, we have discovered welfare benefits are paying for alcohol, cigarettes and other things that hardworking taxpayers should not be footing the bill for.”
WIND POWER KEEPS TEXAS POWER ON. Frigid temperatures pushed Texas to a new winter record for power usage (1/7). But thanks in part to wind power, Texans were able to avoid major power outages, despite the stress on the grid, Katie Valentine noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/8).
Cold weather and shutdowns of some power plants forced the Texas grid operator to begin implementing an emergency plan to meet demand (1/6). Demand remained high 1/7, but increased output from West Texas wind farms enabled the state to avoid an emergency scenario. It wasn’t the first time wind has helped Texas avoid power outages in extreme weather, either — in 2011, high wind outputs during peak demand helped Texas’s grid weather 100-plus temperatures.
Wind energy helped other states weather the Polar Vortex as well — as the American Wind Energy Association noted, when the temperatures first began dropping in the Upper Midwest, wind generated enough energy to power 6 mln average homes. The Mid-Atlantic region, too, saw high wind energy output, which helped bolster the grid after some power plants failed unexpectedly due to the weather.
But the Polar Vortex put the vulnerability of the US energy grid in focus. On 1/7, electricity demand in parts of the Southeast US was the second-highest it’s been in winter since the 1920s, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Parts of Tennessee lost power during the night, and parts of South Carolina instituted rolling blackouts to manage the electricity demand. Earlier in the week, 40,000 people in Indiana lost power, and people across the country were urged to conserve power so that the grid could deal with the spike in demand.
PAYDAY LENDER HEADING TEXAS FINANCE COMMISSION UNDER FIRE. State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) called on an executive of a payday loan company to resign as chairman of the Texas Finance Commission for saying people who take out payday loans are responsible for their own situations. William J. White, vice president of Cash America, should be an advocate for consumers on the state panel, but instead makes excuses for his predatory industry, Davis said, according to the Dallas Morning News (12/30).
Cash America is a payday lender that was fined $19 mln by the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in November for abusive practices. Payday lenders such as Cash America make much of their money by charging large fees to extend small loans. The charges and fees can often add up to more than 500% annual interest.
White was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry (R) to the Finance Commission in 2011.
Davis, running for governor, also blamed the proliferation of the payday loan industry in Texas on a 2006 letter to the Texas Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner Leslie Pettijohn from Davis’ likely opponent, Texas Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott (R). In the letter, Abbott stated that payday lenders could operate under the model of “credit services organizations,” which act as middle-men by securing a loan for a customer through an independent, third-party lender and charging fees, which are unlimited, KVUE-TV in Austin reported (1/7).
Hector Nieto, whose organization, the Lone Star Project, found the letter, said Abbott’s analysis was a boon to payday lenders waiting for the green light to skirt state laws limiting interest rates.
“Prior to 2006, there were only about 300 payday lenders in Texas,” said Nieto. “Now, as a result of this letter, there are over 3,000 payday lenders in Texas. That’s more than Whataburgers and McDonald’s combined.”
An Abbott campaign spokesman noted (1/2) that Davis voted to confirm White to his position. The Davis campaign noted that White’s nomination was included in a group of appointees who were voted on in a group and 30 of the 31 senators voted for all of them. Davis’ vote to confirm White was made under the assumption he would not ultimately use his post to benefit his own company.
Another payday lender will help collect tolls for the César Chávez Border Highway toll road, which was expected to open 1/8. The El Paso Times reported that the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority will work with the payday lender ACE Cash Express to help collect tolls for the toll road.
While people who want to set up an account to use the road or pay off their toll charges can do so by phone, mail or online, the only places to do so in person in El Paso are at ACE stores. Those individuals who make the transaction at the payday lender “will be charged a $3 fee to set up the account and a $2 convenience service fee to replenish a non-credit card,” the paper notes.
In an email to The Huffington Post, CRRMA Executive Director Raymond Telles said his organization partnered with the North Texas Tollway Authority, a state agency which operates toll roads in the northern part of the state. He stressed that the NTTA is the one with the ACE partnership.
DEMS IN CONGRESS SLAM OBAMA CAVE-IN TO GOP ON JUDGES. Last November, Senate Democrats invoked a procedural maneuver that allowed them to confirm judicial nominees by a simple majority vote, thus cutting off the GOP’s ability to maintain control over a key federal appeals court by simply refusing to permit anyone to be confirmed. So, Ian Milhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org (1/6) it’s a bit odd that, just over a month after Senate Republicans effectively lost their ability to veto nominees from the minority. President Obama decided to outsource selecting nominees to most of the open judicial seats in Georgia to two Republican senators.
Presently, five judicial vacancies need to be filled in Georgia. Yet, as 2013 wound down, Obama agreed to a deal that would place most of these seats in Republican hands. Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) would agree to stop blocking attorney Jill Pryor’s nomination to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit — a nomination that they have effectively held up for well over 1,000 days. In return, Obama would nominate a George H.W. Bush-appointed judge — Chief Judge Julie Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia — to the other open seat on the 11th Circuit, creating a fourth vacancy on this federal trial court. Chambliss and Isakson would then be allowed to select three of the four attorneys named to these seats.
Shortly after the nominees were announced, civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) warned that these nominees “do not adequately reflect the diversity of the Northern District and that the selection process lacked meaningful community input,” and that “several nominees include persons who have advocated in favor of Georgia’s voter ID laws and for including the Confederate Battle Emblem as part of the Georgia State Flag.” He was joined in his complaint about these nominees by several of his fellow civil rights leaders, as well as Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and David Scott (D-Ga).
Rep. Scott pushed even harder, writing a letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) asking to testify against the nominees — “It is an abomination that these nominees for lifetime appointment were drafted in secret, not vetted by any legal groups among the President’s supporters, and announced on a holiday weekend. We must not allow lifetime appointed judges to be rammed through the hearing process without sufficient input from the people who will be affected by their future judicial actions.”
The most likely reason why President Obama agreed to this GOP-friendly package of nominees is something known as the “blue slip,” which allows home state senators to effectively veto judicial nominees from their state. Although former Judiciary Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) abandoned the blue slip rule in favor of process that allowed judicial nominations to move forward “provided that the Administration ... engaged in pre-nomination consultation with both of the home-state Senators,” Leahy has clung to the rule during Obama’s presidency. He could eliminate it at any time, however, and take away the ability of Republican senators to extract deals such as this one.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats have another option. They can confirm Jill Pryor and other nominees who are in line with the voters who gave them a majority in the Senate, while voting down the four nominees selected by Republicans.
BOEING WORKERS NARROWLY OK CONTRACT. Boeing won concessions from its Machinists by a 51-49 percent margin in a second vote (1/3) after threatening to move work for the next generation of its 777X airliner to a right-to-work state. Approval of the contract by about 600 votes was a reversal from a November 2013 vote in which the International Association of Machinists, which had three years remaining on its old contract, rejected the new contract by a 2-1 margin.
Analysts estimate the 777X production as well as retaining 737 MAX production in Renton through 2024 could account for as many as 20,000 direct and indirect jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity. The extension includes a two-part signing bonus but changes the IAM members’ defined-benefit pension plan. The union sid the plan will continue to pay full benefits to vested members, but Boeing will cease making contributions and new hires will instead be covered by a company-funded 401(k) plan and a separate savings plan that includes matching company contributions.
IAM President R. Thomas Buffenbarger said, “After weeks of robust debate, IAM members at Boeing made decisions they felt were in the best interest of their careers. Despite individual differences, I believe this vote preserves thousands of good-paying IAM jobs, while assuring the success of the 777X program.”
Jim Levitt, a 35-year Machinist at Boeing, wrote for Labor Notes (1/6) the union has lost collective bargaining, for all intents and purposes. “Two times now, in a three-year period, Boeing has come after us for concessions while we still had a year (in 2011) or three years (2013) left on our contract. Both times, the company has used the threat of moving the next generation of a given airplane program (737 in 2011, 777X in 2013) if we didn’t comply.
“Because we are under contract, we had no strike weapon to provide leverage.
This new contract will be in place until 2024. Boeing will be looking to revamp at least a couple of other airplane programs before then… guaranteeing that the company will be back for another bite of the apple.
“‘Take It or We Leave’ is the new modus operandi.”
Levitt wrote that the local workers’ efforts to defend the contract “were completely undercut by the International,” which ordered the second vote.
“Let’s put this vote behind us and go forward in solidarity,” wrote Wilson Ferguson, president of Local A (the largest local within District Lodge 751) and a strong proponent of a “no” vote both times, online. His statement was shared in a public Facebook group where members were discussing the deal. Ferguson wrote:
“There is a lot of talk of pulling out of the International, that is a self defeating proposition. Our best strategy is to remove Buffy from office. That campaign starts today.”
Levitt added, “The loss of our pension is a big blow. Not only to us but to workers across the country. Maybe folks on the GUAV page [a “vote yes” Facebook page] are right that pensions are a thing of the past but it would have been nice to have had a good faith negotiation on the matter.
“So while you may be happy that we accepted the deal, please don’t confuse a victory with the loss of something that folks fought, bled and sometimes died to win.”
NICHOLS’ PROGRESSIVE HONOR ROLL. John Nichols has published his annual Progressive Honor Roll of 2013 in The Nation; congratulations to the honorees (see the entire list at The Nation):
• Most Valuable Senator: Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). When speculation about her prospects as a presidential contender spiked, the new senator from Massachusetts turned attention away from herself and toward the need to crack down on “too big to fail” banks. “Since when does Congress set deadlines, watch regulators miss most of them, and then take that failure as a reason not to act?” Warren asked in November. That’s how she rolls: while many other senators seek the spotlight, Warren uses it to rip the “corporate capture of the courts” and object to rules in trade agreements that limit the ability of nations to regulate the financial industry.
• Most Valuable House Member: George Miller (D-Calif.) Senior Democrat on the powerful Education and the Workforce Committee, Miller has been in the House since 1975. But the California congressman has lost none of his fire. With Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), he introduced a plan in March to hike the minimum wage to $10.10—with automatic cost-of-living increases annually. Nor did Miller stop there. He cheered on fast-food workers as they struck for a $15-an-hour wage. He tore into Republicans over their “repeal Obamacare” obsession and was even blunter in denouncing GOP plans to cut food stamps. Miller did not simply toe the Democratic line; he opposed President Obama’s proposal to fast-track the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And he was superb on an issue most members of Congress rarely recognize: after a Bangladeshi garment factory collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, Miller denounced US retailers that have “led this race to the bottom over many years,” telling corporations like Walmart that they “have to make a decision now whether you want to have blood on your labels.”
• Most Valuable Obama Nominee: Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. The son of first-generation Dominican immigrants who served as a civil rights adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy and as Maryland’s labor secretary, Perez has a history of focusing on immigrant rights, voting rights, racial violence and discrimination against workers. But Senate committee chair Tom Harkin refused GOP efforts to delay hearings, and majority leader Harry Reid forced a cloture vote. Even then, Perez was the first cabinet nominee in US history to be confirmed on a party-line vote. Undaunted, he moved quickly to improve the tracking of workplace injuries and make it easier for whistleblowers to file complaints. And he hit the road advocating an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, new investment in job training and a serious minimum-wage hike. “It really is a matter of fairness,” Perez said. “Nobody who works a full-time job should have to live below poverty.”
• Most Valuable State Legislator: State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), captured the imagination not just of her fellow Texans but of the nation in June, when she put on her now-famous sneakers to filibuster for eleven hours against anti-choice legislation. Despite a massive “Stand With Wendy” outpouring of popular support, the Republicans eventually got their way, after Texas Governor Rick Perry and his allies called the legislature back into session. But perhaps not for long: Davis is running an insurgent Democratic campaign that says it’s time for the home state of Ann Richards to elect another pro-choice governor.
• Most Valuable Municipal Rising Star: Tish James, newly elected public advocate for New York City, she is a former Legal Aid Society public defender who, as an assistant state attorney general, took on predatory lenders and assisted an investigation of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy. Elected to the City Council in 2003, James has battled developers and outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg on behalf of affordable housing and responsible policing. In 2011, she called on Bloomberg to investigate systemic corruption in the NYPD, and in her campaign for public advocate, James highlighted her role as one of four council members to sue the NYPD over its mistreatment of Occupy Wall Street activists. Taking Occupy themes to the campaign trail, James said New Yorkers “don’t need more billionaires…. What we need is to boost working families and create a middle class that’s built to last.” She won 84 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman of color to hold citywide office in the nation’s largest city.
Most Valuable Union: Seattle Education Association, which supported a protest of overtesting of students by teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School in January 2013, with support from parents, students, rank-and-file activists from Seattle Equality Educators and local NAACP leaders. The school superintendent announced in May that schools could opt out of the testing regimen and that test scores would no longer be a graduation requirement.
Most Valuable Budget Plan: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Progressive Budget Blueprint. the Vermont senator joined the select Senate and House budget committee after the GOP-led government shutdown, he did so as a steadfast opponent of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But Sanders went further, producing a progressive budget blueprint that seeks to shift the debate from austerity and toward fairness. The Sanders budget would crack down on offshore tax shelters as part of a strategy to reduce the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade; tax capital gains and dividends in the same way we tax salaries and wages to raise over $500 billion; and repeal Bush’s tax cuts for the rich to reduce the deficit by $400 billion. It would raise hundreds of billions more by establishing a progressive estate tax; ending breaks and subsidies for big oil, gas and coal companies; and initiating a Wall Street speculation fee on the sale and purchase of credit default swaps, derivatives, stock options and futures. “When we are experiencing more wealth and income inequality than at any time since the 1920s, and when Wall Street and large corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits, I believe that we should be asking the very wealthiest people in this country to start paying their fair share,” says Sanders.
Most Valuable Program: National People’s Action Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy. NPA’s network of grassroots organizations involved in direct-action challenges to economic and racial injustice, took the time in 2013 to consult economic fairness, civil rights and immigrant rights campaigners and develop a plan to “reimagine what’s possible.” With its focus on expanding democracy, the agenda charts a course toward a “just economy” with more public ownership and community control of capital. NPA’s agenda does not just attack “too big to fail” banking; it proposes moving money to infrastructure banks and state banks that invest in communities and people.
Most Valuable Education of Congress: PDA’s “Letter Drops.” Working with Food & Water Watch (on fracking), Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (on the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and US Labor Against the War (on intervention and Pentagon spending), Progressive Democrats of America has organized monthly “Educate Congress” interventions. Activists have dropped by as many as 250 congressional district offices in a single day to deliver letters and talk with representatives and staffers. “Instead of lobbyists, members of Congress are hearing from constituents who want to talk about economic and social justice, environmental justice and peace,” says PDA director Tim Carpenter.
Most Valuable Protest: Mountain Moral Monday. When up to 10,000 North Carolinians rallied Aug. 5 on Mountain Moral Monday in Asheville, N.C., Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, announced: “This is no momentary hyperventilation and liberal screaming match. This is a movement.” The protests against legislative attacks on voting rights, public education and programs for low-income families began last spring at the state Capitol in Raleigh. But when the GOP-controlled legislature adjourned, the massive rally in Asheville signaled that the movement had spread. Barber declared that “from the mountains to the coast,” there is a movement for “a new South, a new North Carolina and a new future.”
Most Valuable Translation of the Pope’s Message: Network. Pope Francis is Time’s “Person of the Year.” Why? Mainly because he’s reminded Catholics—and everyone else—not only of a duty to the poor, but of how the “tyranny of capitalism” impedes that duty. Now the question is whether the pope’s high-minded statements will translate into action. Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby, is trying to make the connection. The group that provided critical support for healthcare reform and challenged Paul Ryan’s budgets with its “Nuns on the Bus” tour issued a December appeal for Americans to “Join with Pope Francis to Pray and Act for an End to Hunger.” Network’s specific demand was that Congress protect food stamp funding. The broader message was a call for politicians to “prioritize people who are most vulnerable in our nation, remembering that the measure of our nation’s greatness is how we treat those who are struggling.”
Most Valuable State Initiative: Vermont’s Single-Payer Experiment. As everyone else wrangled over even the mildest Affordable Care Act reforms, Gov. Peter Shumlin and his legislative allies were busy preparing a single-payer system for Vermont. Yes, they worked with federal officials to set up the Vermont Health Connect exchange as part of the ACA. But they also allocated resources to study development of a state-based single-payer system and prepared to seek the federal waiver required to implement it in 2017. It isn’t all studies and waivers, however; Shumlin is also building a constituency for what he calls “the most ambitious policy lift in Vermont history,” vowing “to gear up our staff and engage Vermonters from all walks of life.”
Most Valuable Musical Partnership: Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello. When Springsteen added the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist to his touring band, two great rockers with progressive politics started making great music together. In November, Springsteen released a fabulous cover of the Havalinas’ “High Hopes” (“I wanna have some kids / I wanna look in their eyes and know they’ll stand a chance…”), crediting “Tom and his guitar” as “my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.” Springsteen’s next album will have a political edge befitting the partnership; among the tracks is a new version of “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song about racial division and violence that he began dedicating to Trayvon Martin in his stage shows.
Most Valuable Book: Diane Ravitch’s *Reign of Error*. Yes, she really did serve as an assistant education secretary for George H.W. Bush, and yes, she once supported George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” But Ravitch refuses to cling to failed strategies, as she explains in her groundbreaking new book, subtitled The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Driven by experience and data, she demolishes the argument that rigid requirements and punishments will make schools better. Indeed, she argues, these schemes too frequently serve the interests of misguided foundations, ideologically driven billionaires and Wall Street speculators more interested in privatizing public education—with some of them profiting in the process—than in helping children, parents and communities. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says, “Diane is a fierce warrior against the so-called reformers whose ideology exacerbates the problems of poverty and inequity.”
Most Valuable Radio Program: The Marc Steiner Show. No one who has listened to veteran activist Marc Steiner’s morning show on Morgan State University’s WEAA can figure out why this guy hasn’t gone national. Yet Steiner is so into his hometown of Baltimore that it’s hard to imagine him anywhere else. This is what public affairs radio should be: informed, nuanced, interested in a range of opinions, yet clear and unequivocal in its passion for democracy and social justice. Steiner is exceptionally well prepared for every interview, determined to foster dialogue and so respected that state and national political figures are frequent guests. What makes his show remarkable, however, is Steiner’s respect for his listeners. He knows they will engage with discussions about poverty in Baltimore and poverty in Palestine, about the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And the Peabody Award–winning broadcaster’s “Day in History” review explores the cultural and political landscape with thrilling depth and reach.
Most Valuable TV Coverage: Democracy Now! on Syria. When President Obama started talking about launching airstrikes, Amy Goodman, Juan González and the DN! team aired shows that highlighted the voices of Syrians, giving a human face to stories from inside the country. They focused on what international leaders were saying long before Vladimir Putin argued in a New York Times op-ed that airstrikes would undermine the UN. They opened up deep discussions about America’s role in the world with the likes of historian Andrew Bacevich—who appeared with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. And they aired dissent from Americans like Representative Alan Grayson, who said: “I’m very disturbed by this general idea…that every time we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it.” That dissent—highlighted by a handful of other radio and cable TV hosts like Ed Schultz and Thom Hartmann—was in tune with the American people, and the seriousness with which it was presented added credibility to the calls for an alternative to war.
Most Valuable Newspaper: The Stranger. Newspaper endorsements aren’t supposed to matter much in our digital age. But papers that take bold stands and back them up with all they’ve got can still have a dramatic impact. When The Stranger, a news and culture weekly that bills itself as “Seattle’s Only Newspaper,” backed socialist Kshama Sawant’s successful campaign for a citywide Council seat, it went all in, featuring the community college professor and Occupy Seattle activist on the cover and challenging the assumption that radicals can’t win. “If you are still laughing at the electoral prospects of Socialist Alternative Party city council candidate Kshama Sawant, the joke is on you. Sawant is the real deal. She kicks ass. And she could actually win in November,” read one piece, while another was subtitled “Why You Must Vote for a Real, Genuine Socialist.” Sawant ran a smart campaign that focused on her call for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but The Stranger’s full-frontal assault on politics as usual was a reminder that there are still newspapers—The San Francisco Bay Guardian is another—that can shake up the status quo.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014
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