Who Really Supports Military Families? The Democrats

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

One of the most powerful moments of President Obama’s State of the Union Address earlier this week was when he spoke passionately about the need for us to support the men and women who serve our nation in the military, their families, and our veterans, stating:

Tonight, let us speak with one voice in reaffirming that our nation is united in support of our troops and their families. Let us serve them as well as they have served us – by giving them the equipment they need; by providing them with the care and benefits they have earned; and by enlisting our veterans in the great task of building our own nation.

What made this statement even better is that,  in contrast to the empty pro-troop rhetoric spouted by conservatives, the record shows that President Obama and progressives truly fight for our troops by enacting policies that support and reward them for their service.

A great example of progressives backing up pro-troop rhetoric with real world action was seen earlier this week when President Obama, joined by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, announced the official launch of the Administration’s Strengthening Our Military Families initiative.  The initiative is the result of a May 2010 Presidential Study Directive, which ordered all federal government agencies to work together to create a coordinated approach for supporting military families.  The resulting plan identified four areas where all government agencies will work together to benefit military families:

* Enhancing the well-being and psychological health of the military family.

* Ensuring excellence in military children’s education and their development.

* Developing career and educational opportunities for military spouses.

* Increasing child care availability and quality for the Armed Forces.

Just a few examples of steps that will be taken include:

* The DOD, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services will work together to improve mental health services and accelerate suicide prevention efforts

* The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by last year’s Wall Street reform legislation, will have an Office of Service Members Affairs, to help curb predatory lending practices targeting military families, which is a major problem as we’ve previously explained

* The Department of Education will make supporting military families one of the supplemental priorities for its discretionary grant programs

You can learn more about the initiative at the Defense Department’s website about it.

The Strengthening Our Military Families initiative is far from the only example of progressives taking the lead in working to meet the needs of our troops, military families, and veterans.  For example, as we have discussed previously, a recently released 2010 Congressional Report Card from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America ranked the voting records of members of the U.S. House and Senate on issues such as full and advanced funding for the Veterans Administration health care system (so that the VA does not always have to stand by nervously to see if they are going to get enough funding), supporting improvements to the post-9/11 GI Bill, modernizing the VA claims system, and providing unemployment benefits to combat veterans just returning from war.   All of the Senators earning an A+ or A ranking are Democrats, while almost all of the Senators who earned a D or lower grade are Republicans.  On the House side, most of the representatives earning an A+ or A are Democrats, while most of the D or lower grades went to Republicans.   Similar results can be seen in IAVA’s 2008 report, IAVA’s 2006 report, and a recent ranking from the Disabled American Veterans.

In short, the record is clear that, when it comes to supporting our troops, military families, and veterans, Democrats offer real action.  If you’d like to help push back on the conservative canard to the contrary, write a letter to your local newspaper editor thanking President Obama for his Stengthening Our Military Families initiative and the other steps that Democrats have taken to support our troops, military families, and veterans.

Here are links for submitting letters to the editor for national papers, and to newspapers in Colorado, Connecticut, DelawareIllinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

Health Care Reform Reader LTE Published

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Reader Mark M. writes to let us know that his following letter to the editor was published in both the Athens (Ohio) News and Athens Messenger.  Two things we especially like about this letter is that it frames the health care reforms as benefiting everyone in America, and it specifically names the local Democratic Congressperson (who, unfortunately, lost re-election) who voted for the legislation, and the two area Republicans who may vote next week to repeal it.

Thanks to the Dems in Congress for improving our health-care system

To the Editor:

Taking care of the sick and elderly is one of the most humane and decent functions of our society. The health-care reform legislation of 2010 passed by the Democrats in Congress and signed into law by President Obama makes it easier for our nation to take care of our sick and elderly. Since we will all be elderly and sick someday, this law helps everyone in America.

Thank you, Charlie Wilson and the other Democrats in Congress, for taking a stand for all of us by voting to improve our health-care system. These improvements will prove very popular, and Republicans attack it at their political peril (in Appalachian Ohio, that means you, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gibbs).

This week, the following sections of the law go into effect:

  • Health Insurance Companies Are Required to Spend Your Premiums on Providing Benefits: The new law requires that 85 percent of premiums for large plans (and 80 percent for medium- and small-sized plans) go toward providing health care, rather than more marketing and profits.
  • Closing the Medicare Doughnut Hole:Under the Medicare prescription drug coverage program, which was established in 2005, millions of Americans are required to pay monthly premiums all year around, but lose coverage after incurring $2,700 in prescription expenses in a year. Coverage does not restart until the senior has spent $6,154. For seniors on fixed or limited incomes faced with significant prescription drug needs, this doughnut hole in coverage can pose a significant economic burden. Drug companies are now required to provide a 50-percent discount on the cost of drugs while seniors are in the doughnut hole. That discount will continue until 2020, when the doughnut hole will be entirely eliminated.
  • Eliminating Medicare Preventive Services Co-Pays: In an effort to improve health and reduce long-term health-care costs, Medicare co-pays have now been eliminated for preventive services identified by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, including diabetes and cancer screenings, tobacco-use cessation counseling, and healthy diet counseling. Deductibles for colorectal cancer screening have also been eliminated.
  • Saving Taxpayer Money: End of the unnecessary subsidy to privately run Medicare Advantage insurance plans, which receive 14 percent more taxpayer money than similar Medicare plans run by the government. This subsidy begins to be eliminated this year.

If you get a letter to the editor published, let us know and we may post it here.

A New Progressive Strategy for a New Year?

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

2011 brings a significant shift in the balance of power in D.C., with Republicans taking control of the House and the Democrats’ Senate majority down to 53 votes.  Given such a shift, it is worth evaluating whether there should also be a shift in the political strategy of President Obama, the Democrats in Congress, and the progressive base.  We here at Winning Progressive believe the answer to this question is yes.

Over the past two years, the debate on the progressive side has largely been between folks who feel that President Obama and the Congressional Democrats have compromised our principles far too much, and people who think that the Obama Administration followed a good strategy for making as much progress as was reasonably possible.  The former position is elaborated quite well in this article, forward by reader Kate M., in which Paul Krugman and Robin Wells contend that President Obama’s quest for bi-partisanship led to inadequate economic policies, alienation of the progressive base, and the electoral shellacking that the Democrats took last November.  They assert that our President is either unable or unwilling to fight for the bold progressive leadership that our country needs.

We here at Winning Progressive have some sympathy for this position, as we are generally supportive of taking an aggressive stance against conservatives and have been disappointed with some of the compromises that were made.  But we also believe that the Krugman/Wells position ignores a couple key points that show that President Obama and the Congressional Democrats pursued a good strategy in light of the political realities they faced.  First, results matter, and the fact is that there is a long list of Democratic accomplishments over the past two years that moved the ball forward on numerous progressive goals.  Second, the reality of the situation was that any legislation was going to need the votes of a few conservative Democrats and, for most of the past two years, at least one Republican given that the Senate was acting on a 60-vote requirement.  An aggressive stance by President Obama and Congressional Democrats may have imperiled the ability to get those votes on, for example, DADT repeal.

Ezra Klein had a great post about this debate a few days ago in which he concluded that both sides are right, but not at the same time.  In other words, over the past two years, President Obama’s strategy made a lot of sense, as the possibility of alienating even a couple Republican or conservative Democratic votes was a big risk given that it would have sunk the ability to pass any legislation.  But now, with the shift in Congress making legislative gains for progressives close to impossible over the next two years, a shift in strategy is necessary.

We here at Winning Progressive think that both the Obama Administration and progressives need to change their strategies for the next two years along the lines of the following:

* Increased Boldness and Aggressiveness From the Administration – One major change in strategy should be in how the Obama Administration approaches Congress and the Republicans.  Rather than continuing with the approach of compromising and attempts at bi-partisanship in order to try to get legislative victories, the Administration should offer bold plans on the economy and other issues, and not water down their proposals in an attempt get things passed.  The Administration should also go on the attack against the Republicans for their continued hindrance of an economic recovery, favoritism of the wealthy elite, and efforts to undermine Social Security, Medicare, and other important government programs.  And, the Administration should get as much progressive change as possible through agency rulemakings and other steps that do not require Congressional approval.  Such a change in strategy is appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, because with the House run by the Republicans, no good progressive legislation is going to get enacted regardless of how much the Democrats compromise.   Second, with the 2012 elections coming up, boldness is necessary to change the political dynamic that existed in the elections this past November, and to fire the base up.

* Increased Progressive Focus on Our Policies and on Challenging Republicans – While the Administration should start taking more of the aggressive approach that many progressives want, progressives need to adapt to some of the changes that the Administration has been urging.  In particular, too many progressives have spent much of the past two years complaining about compromises made by President Obama and Congressional Democrats rather than highlighting the advantages of progressive victories that have been achieved and attacking the real opposition – the Republicans.  The result is that, with Republicans opposed to President Obama and progressives constantly attacking the Administration, the messages about how progressive policies are helping the American people and about how wrong the Republicans are were barely ever heard, and too much of the public saw the Obama Administration as a failure despite his long list of accomplishments.  We may have gotten away with this during the past two years of large Democratic majorities in D.C., but with Republicans now running the House, there being only a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, and Republicans seeking to repeal the policy successes of the past two years, the next two years are going to be extremely ugly for progressives unless we take the battle to the Republicans, and proudly stand up for progressive victories and policies from the past two years, rather than continuing to focus the bulk of our energy on attacking the President.

In sum, the next two years are going to be an all-0ut war by Republicans and the conservative media on the progressive victories of the past two years and progressivism as a whole.  The strategies of the past two years achieved a lot, but they are considerably less likely to work over the next two years.  So both the Administration and progressives should modify their approaches by being bolder, challenging Republicans more, and trumpeting the benefits of progressivism more, and compromising and attacking folks on our side less.

What do you think?  Send us an e-mail on our best strategies for the next two years, and we may publish the best ones we receive.

More Health Care Reform Benefits Go Into Effect

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Yesterday was an important day for fixing our broken health insurance system, as a number of key provisions of last year’s health care reform legislation enacted by President Obama and the Democratic Congress went into effect on January 1.  Unfortunately, health care reform is under political attack, so write a letter to the editor at your local newspaper about the importance of the new health care reforms that have just taken effect.

As we’ve outlined previously, the health insurance system in the U.S. is broken – it covers too few people, costs far too much, gets inadequate results, and is rife with anti-consumer practices by health insurance companies.   The Democrats’ historic health care reform legislation, however, started addressing these problems by curbing abusive health insurance industry practices, expanding affordable coverage to 32 million more Americans, and finding common sense ways to begin reducing health care costs.

Under the legislation enacted last year, health care reform is phased in between 2010 and 2014.  You can find all of the provisions that went into effect on January 1, 2011 here, but the four most important are:

* Requiring Health Insurance Companies to Spend Your Premiums on Providing Benefits: Health insurance companies describe the amount of your premiums that they spend on providing health care to you as their “medical loss ratio.”  In other words, if your insurer spends 70 cents on every dollar on health care, and the remaining 30 cents goes towards advertising, marketing, and profits, the medical loss ratio is 70%.  While medical loss ratios for health insurance used to average 90%, it has slipped in recent years, with some companies in the individual market having ratios as low as 60%.  The health insurance reform legislation halts this trend by requiring that 85% of premiums for large plans, and 80% for medium and small-sized plans, go toward providing health care, rather than marketing and profits.

* Closing the Medicare Doughnut Hole: Under the Medicare prescription drug coverage program, which was established in 2005, millions of Americans are required to pay monthly premiums all year around, but lose coverage after incurring $2,700 on prescription expenses in a year.  Coverage does not restart until the senior has spent $6,154. For seniors on fixed or limited incomes faced with significant prescription drug needs, this doughnut hole in coverage can pose a significant economic burden.  Yesterday, a major step was taken toward closing this doughnut hole, as drug companies are now required to provide a 50% discount on the cost of drugs while seniors are in the doughnut hole.  That discount will continue until 2020, when the doughnut hole will be entirely eliminated.

* Medicare Preventive Services Coverage: In an effort to improve health and reduce long term health care costs, Medicare co-pays have now been eliminated for preventive services identified by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, including diabetes and cancer screenings, tobacco use cessation counseling, and healthy diet counseling.  Deductibles for colorectal cancer screening have also been eliminated.

* Saving Taxpayer Money: One of the steps in the health care reform legislation to save taxpayer money is to end the unnecessary subsidy to privately run Medicare Advantage insurance plans, which receive 14% more taxpayer money than similar Medicare plans run by the government.  This subsidy begins to be eliminated this year.

The benefits of health care reform will, of course, only be achieved if last year’s legislation is fully implemented and funded over the next few years.  Unfortunately, many leading Republicans continue to attack health care reform and are threatening to either repeal it or defund it.  Therefore, it is critical that progressive supporters of health care reform make their support known publicly.

As a step toward doing so, we recommend writing a letter to your local newspaper thanking the Democrats for making health insurance companies spend your premiums on providing you benefits, closing the Medicare doughnut hole, eliminating co-pays for preventive services, and saving taxpayer money.  Here are the House and Senate roll calls on the health care reform vote – if you congresspeople voted for reform, thank them in your letter (h/t to reader Mark M. from Ohio for this suggestion).

Here are links to national papers, and to newspapers in DelawareIllinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin

The Democratic Record: Reforming Wall Street

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Wall Street reform is a complex topic, but the issue can be summed up as follows: Conservative deregulatory zeal allowed a financial market meltdown to occur, costing our economy eight million jobs.  Republicans and Democrats voted to save the financial industry through the TARP bailout.  Only one party – the Democrats – has worked to address the causes of the meltdown by seeking to avoid future bailouts, creating a consumer financial protection bureau, and regulating derivatives.

****************

While many contributing factors to the Bush Recession, which led to the loss of eight million jobs and the elimination of trillions of dollars in household wealth, have been identified, the overriding cause was the complete meltdown of our financial system in 2008.  And it is widely acknowledged that this meltdown was triggered by a deregulatory ethos that overtook our political system over the past twenty years, leading to a situation where more and more risky and speculative financial products were created with little to no oversight by the government.  Even Alan Greenspan, who was identified by the Washington Post’s business columnist Steve Pearlstein as “The Laissez-Fairest of Them All”, admitted in testimony to Congress that his deregulatory zeal was a flawed theory that allowed the financial meltdown to occur.

Unfortunately, members of both major political parties were complicit in allowing the conditions that led to the financial meltdown.  While the failed deregulatory approach is a core principle of the conservative movement that finds its home in the Republican Party, too many Democrats fell for the allure of the snake-oil that the deregulatory zealots were selling.

But important, substantive differences between the parties have been revealed by their responses after the meltdown occurred.  First, only one party – the Democrats – worked to make sure that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”) funds were properly spent.  President Bush proposed, and Congress approved by a bi-partisan vote, TARP, which authorized the government to use up to $700 billion purchasing troubled financial products in order to save the financial industry.  After serious concerns were raised about the effectiveness of the distribution of the first $350 billion in TARP funds by the Bush Administrations, House Democrats passed the TARP Reform and Accountability Act, which would have dedicated $100 billion in TARP funds towards helping homeowners facing foreclosures, forced banks to report how they were using TARP funds, and limited executive compensation at firms accepting TARP funds.  Unfortunately, this legislation was one of 372 bills passed by the House that have so far died in the U.S. Senate, largely due to Republican obstructionism.  So, while both parties supported efforts to save the financial system, only one – the Democrats – had a significant block of members who wanted to increase government oversight to make sure that taxpayer money was being used in a transparent and effective way.

The second prong of the government response to the financial meltdown is to put in place policies that would reduce the chances of another meltdown in the future.  On this front, Democrats have had to act virtually alone, as Republicans have almost uniformly opposed and worked to weaken such efforts.  In July of this year, the U.S. Senate passed an historic financial reform bill by a 60-39 vote, after three Senate Republicans finally acted to break a long-running Republican filibuster.    The House had previously passed financial reform by a 232-202 vote, with every Republican member voting against it.

The financial reform legislation focused on filling a number of regulatory gaps that had developed because conservative anti-regulatory zeal had prevented our regulatory structures to keep up with changes in the financial system.  Three important provisions are especially worth highlighting:

  • Avoiding Future Bailouts: Since the 1930s, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) has had the authority to step in and liquidate a bank that was in financial trouble in order to prevent failure of that bank from having negative repercussions on the rest of the economy.   Unfortunately, that authority did not extend to other financial institutions, such as investment houses like AIG and Bear Stearns, which had become “too-big-to-fail.”  Because their failure would have taken down the entire economy, folks in D.C. felt that they had to bail those financial institutions out through TARP.  The financial reform legislation seeks to avoid this situation in the future by taking steps to prevent financial institutions from becoming too-big-to-fail, granting the FDIC the authority to liquidate financial institutions that are in trouble, and ensuring that the costs of such liquidations are borne by shareholders and creditors, not taxpayers.

  • Protecting Consumers: A second contributing factor to the Bush Recession was the growth of questionable consumers lending practices by subprime mortgage lenders, payday loan stores, and credit card companies.  Those practices led to an increasing wave of defaults on loans and foreclosures that undermined the real estate market and consumer spending.  Because the real estate mortgages had been securitized by the financial industry, the collapse of the real estate market had reverberations throughout the industry and economy as a whole.  The financial reform legislation creates a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, housed within the Federal Reserve, which will be run by a Presidential appointee and have an independent budget.  The Bureau will be charged with enforcing a wide array of consumer protections, including the new credit card industry reforms signed by President Obama, and will consolidate enforcement of consumer protections that are currently handled by seven different agencies.
  • Regulating Derivatives: Another major contributor to the financial meltdown was the growth of over-the-counter derivatives, which are financial instruments whose value are based on the price of a different item.  While traditional derivatives, like trades in pork or corn futures, are done in the open and relatively safe, over-the-counter derivatives, which are often based on bets about the value of a particular currency or interest rate trends in a specific country, were almost entirely un-regulated before financial reform passed.   The reform legislation brings over-the-counter derivatives out of the dark, but subjecting them to regulation by the Security Exchanges Commission and Commodities Future Trade Commission.

The financial reform legislation, of course, does not solve all of the problems in the financial system, and some unfortunate compromises were made to get the legislation passed.  But, as I’ve discussed previously, progressive change involves a long, ongoing struggle in which today’s progress is built on with future successes.  In addition, the need for more reform is further evidence of why we need to return Democratic majorities, rather than letting Republicans who would turn the clock back on financial reform take Congress over.

The Democrats’ financial reform legislation makes a good start on addressing key causes and impacts of the financial meltdown of 2008 by avoiding future bailouts, protecting consumers, and regulating risky derivatives.   And, as our friends over at The People’s View recently pointed out, these reforms, combined with international financial reforms recently achieved by the Obama Administration, are already leading financial institutions to shift their investments into more safe and secure transactions.  By contrast Republicans, after voting to bailout the financial institutions that caused the Bush Recession, have largely sought to obstruct any effort to make sure that future financial meltdowns do not occur.

Are you glad that President Obama and the Democrats in Congress succeeded in passing financial reform that will end some of the worst abuses on Wall Street, avoid future bailouts, and protect consumers from subprime and payday lenders?  If so, volunteer for a local Democratic candidate, write a letter to your local newspaper editor, and make sure your friends, family, and neighbors know who you are going to vote for.

The Democratic Record: Making College More Affordable

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

President Obama on Tuesday held a rally in Madison, Wisconsin that was attended by nearly 30,000 people.  The rally showed that, contrary to what the media wants you to believe, many Americans continue to enthusiastically support our President and the progressive change he is working to advance.  As expected, the conservative media hardly even covered the event.

That tens of thousands of people would show up at this rally in a college town was not surprising given that President Obama and Democrats in Congress have taken important steps to help people go to college by improving the student loan system and making college more affordable.  These achievements include:

  • Ending Subsidies to Private Student Loan Companies – For years, the federal government has paid fees to private banks to provide loans to students.  President Obama and the Democrats have made the student loan system more efficient by cutting out the middleman and having the federal government loan money directly to students.  This change is expected to save approximately $68 billion in fees over the next 10 years.
  • Increasing Pell Grants – Under the Democratic student loan reforms, much of the $68 billion in savings will be used to increase Pell Grants, which are needs-based grants provided to students seeking their first undergraduate college degree.  The increased funding will allow Pell Grants to increase to nearly $6,000 per year by 2017 (from $4,700 in 2008), and will provide 820,000 more grants per year by 2020.
  • Reducing Loan Repayments – A portion of the $68 billion in savings will also go to help reduce the burden of paying off student loans by capping the total repayments at 10% of annual income above a basic living allowance, which is one-third lower than the previous cap of 15%. For graduates who go into public service work, outstanding loans would be forgiven after 10 years of payment.
  • Increasing Resources for Community Colleges – The student loan reform legislation include $2 billion in funding over four years for community colleges.  In addition, last year’s stimulus legislation included substantial amounts of funding that states could use to support community colleges, and has been credited with helping community colleges survive the Bush Recession.
  • Reining in For-Profit Institutions – For-profit institutions – like the University of Phoenix or DeVry Institute – have been growing significantly with 10% of the total college student population and nearly $12 billion in revenue every year.  Too often, however, such institutions engage in shady recruiting and tuition practices that are good for the institutions’ bottom lines, but not for their students.  As a result, students at for-profit colleges are much more likely to default on student loans than are students at other types of educational institutions.  Democrats are seeking to end these shady practices by establishing a “gainful employment” rule, which would cut federal aid that could go to for profit schools if a significant portion of their students do not end up in gainful employment, and a ban on compensation incentives for student recruiters.

President Obama and the Democrats have a strong record of ending subsidies for banks that issue student loans, funneling the resulting $68 billion in savings into expanding student loans, providing aid to community colleges, and seeking to end shady practices at for-profit colleges and universities.  If you support these efforts to make college more affordable, volunteer for your local Democratic candidate and write a letter to the editor to let people know about these progressive Democratic achievements.