Calling your Congressperson: Why it matters

By Executive Director Ryan Thornton

People almost constantly tell you to call Congress, be it a UC Dems Facebook post, or President Trump telling people to call their representatives. But, the question most people (including myself) ask is why does it matter. But, after half of a summer interning with Senator Tammy Duckworth, I can explain both what happens when you call and why it matters. What happens: When you call a representative’s office, you will pretty much all the time be speaking to an intern. These interns will listen to your opinion, ask for some combination of address, zip code, and name, and then copy down your opinion or mark it down on a tally sheet (or sometimes both). What is important to remember is that they are interns, so they honestly won’t be able to answer any of your very narrow policy questions nor does it matter whether all you say is, “Oppose Trumpcare” versus a ten-minute spiel. The interns will duly take down your opinion (so long as you are a constituent) and add to the tally, so make their lives easier by keeping it short and sweet.

Why it matters: This may seem somewhat pointless; if all I am talking to is an intern where I am just a number on a sheet, why bother. The answer is that with every number, the representative knows that that person isn’t just one constituent, but someone who cares enough about politics to call (and therefore vote) and also someone who takes the time to call so their vote could possibly be won. This is the reason why so many senators have come out against many of the failed Trumpcare plans, and why Senator Duckworth starts out her week by looking at the previous weeks call numbers. So although you may be a tally on a sheet, the effects you have on policy and on representatives votes can be great.

On Russia

By Daniel Jellins, Treasurer 

Take a breath.

 

Think about the last year and Russia.

 

Now, think about where we are now and Russia.

 

How are you feeling?

 

This week, there is a new drip to what is the drip drip drip and even more drip of the story involving the President’s new administration and Russian meddling into our election. It has been revealed that the son of the President met with a Russian government linked individual in regards to information that would damage Hillary Clinton. While he at first denied any actionable information, his story changed within 24 hours of the meeting being reported.

 

Now, there are emails (oh the irony) about Trump Jr.’s willingness to obtain information from a foreign government. This is illegal.

 

Stop.

 

Take a breath.

 

Think about that. The son of the President is seemingly admitting (by releasing his own email chain, though he did it because news organizations were about to) that he did something illegal. Further, it demonstrates that he knew that the Russian government was yearning to help the Trump campaign; yet, they have been denying and obfuscating that exact fact for the last year.

 

This investigation into Russia is not a hoax.

 

It is real.

 

No matter where this story ends up, no matter whether it is ever proved that President Trump had prior knowledge of any desire by the Russian government to help him to victory, we are uncertain waters. We are stranded in the middle of this ocean of an investigation, past the point of return yet the shore on the other side is nowhere in sight. In the water, lurking, are stories that have not surfaced and enemies who seek to overturn our country’s metaphorical ship.

 

How are we going to steer the country through this? Who is going to stand up and lead? When we get to the shore, what will be the condition of our country’s ship?

 

These are the important questions to ask. We cannot go back and change anything that has happened in the last year. We can only move forward. But the only way we move forward is recognizing the past, leading in the present, and acting better in the future.

Partisanship in local politics

By Sam Joyce, Political Director

Local politics can often feel entirely disconnected from what goes on in Washington. Only three mayors have gone on to be President, and only Grover Cleveland, the former Mayor of Buffalo, had less than a ten-year gap between his time in municipal office and the beginning of his term as President. But like every other mayor-turned-President, Cleveland still had to become governor of a state (in his case, New York) before he was treated seriously as a candidate for the Presidency. More recently, Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for President fizzled out after a third-place finish in the Florida primary, while rumors of an independent campaign by New York’s Michael Bloomberg amounted to nothing in both 2012 and 2016. From single-payer healthcare in California to legalized marijuana in Colorado, states are frequently taking the lead on issues of national importance, and state legislatures are attracting national attention—and national donors—accordingly. Outside of major cities, however, local elections have not been similarly nationalized.

Two main factors help to prevent partisan influence in local elections. The first is simply different party systems. In parts of the country where one party is historically dominant, party affiliation is typically seen as less meaningful. In many small communities throughout the South, the historical power of the Democratic Party is such that most elected officials remain Democrats, even though the county or city may be solidly red when it comes time to vote for President. In Liberty County, a small county in the Florida Panhandle, Trump took 77% of the vote in 2016 compared to only 20% for Hillary. However, voters delivered landslide victories in the same election for the Democratic candidates for State Senator, Sheriff, Property Appraiser, and County Commissioner, continuing a lengthy period of unbroken Democratic control over every county office. This isn’t because Liberty County is a hotbed of liberalism; rather, it’s a historic vestige of the county’s days as part of the Solid South, when Democrats were effectively the only party at any level of the state. In my home county of Pinellas, a similar dynamic is evident: Pinellas has historically had a strong Republican Party, and though in national elections the country typically votes slightly more Democratic than the rest of the state, Republicans hold every countywide elected office save three seats on the Board of Commissioners.

In many parts of the country, one party simply holds all the power, making the party primary tantamount to election. The power of incumbency weighs heavy, even in a place like Liberty County where Republicans win comfortably at the national level. Every local office holder has always been a Democrat, and every office holder’s father and grandfather has always been a Democrat, and even if you don’t like the party in Washington you (along with 75% of Liberty County’s registered voters) are probably a Democrat too. Regardless of the condition of the national party, these are the folks you go to church with and see around town. It’s also common knowledge that whoever wins the primary wins the general election, and as a result everybody who’s anybody runs in the Democratic primary. The Democratic organization has strong relationships with the town’s prominent citizenry, and has built the operation necessary to get its candidates elected every time. The Republicans, meanwhile, have no money and no organization, and there’s never been any reason to treat it as anything more than a joke. The Democratic primary, of course, is still tantamount to election, and you’d have to be a fool to pass up the real election in order to run as a Republican in the general. The Republicans have no membership, no organization, no money—even if you’re deeply conservative, you run as a Democrat, because that’s how you win elections.

Beyond the advantages of incumbency, however, this system is able to remain in place as a result of the difference between local and state or national issues. Louis Brandeis called the states “laboratories of democracy,” and the allocation of distinct and separate powers to states and the federal government mean that a political party has to operate at both the state and national levels to effectively enact a policy vision. There is no similar mandate at the local level, as localities only have so much control as the state chooses to allow them. While municipal issues certainly sometimes overlap with national debates, such as Seattle’s recent minimum wage hike, there is none of the guaranteed overlap as there is with state governments. As a result, most local elections are fought over issues with no connection to the platforms of the major parties. In my hometown of St. Petersburg, one of the most important issues in the 2013 mayoral election was about the design of the new city pier. While a pressing question, as the pier is one of the city’s architectural landmarks and the new construction would require a large portion of the city’s budget, it’s also an effectively nonpartisan one. There is no particular partisan position favoring one design over another, and neither party’s platform comments on waterfront redevelopment in St. Petersburg. This effect tends to grow stronger in smaller communities, where the municipal government is less likely to tackle “big issues” like immigration or gun control.

As cities grow larger, however, party affiliation becomes more important, as it becomes a better indicator of a candidate’s policies. A party label is important insofar as it serves as a shorthand for a candidate’s values; a Democratic candidate, for instance, is likely to be in favor of things like raising the minimum wage or creating a “sanctuary city” policy, while a Republican candidate is likely to oppose those ideas. This generates interest in the municipal election for people outside of the community itself; I’ve never been to Seattle, for instance, but I’ve followed their debate over the minimum wage. This outside attention necessarily includes the attention of national parties, who see an opportunity to advance their agenda that may not be present in smaller cities. The emergence of national issues can provide the circumstances by which the first barrier to partisanship in local elections, incumbency, can be undermined: outside assistance begins to come to the party out of power, a county party gets organized, a slate of good candidates gets recruited, and suddenly the primary is no longer the general election. This is an uncertain process, of course; Miami, for instance, remains heavily Republican at a municipal level despite typically voting for Democrats for national office, while other cities like Atlanta simply end up overwhelmingly favoring the same party at all levels, but despite some outliers there is a clear and noticeable relationship between a city’s size and the influence of partisan politics.

This process serves a further purpose for state and local parties: municipal offices are essential to forming a bench for future elections. In Florida, mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn, Orlando’s Buddy Dyer, and Tallahassee’s Andrew Gillum have become an essential component of the party’s bench. At the state legislative level, city councilmembers and county commissioners—candidates with a proven record of winning elections—are often the first place a party looks when recruiting candidates for higher office.

The extent to which partisan politics influence municipal elections largely varies based on one factor: the city’s size. Larger cities can command national attention and make policy that directly relates to national issues, and attract outside spending and influence accordingly. In smaller communities, where elections are fought on local issues and the power of incumbency weighs heavier, the influence of state and national political parties is typically weakened—and, as a result, lessening the meaning of party labels.

On the Budget Proposal

By Ridgley Knapp 

Every Republican budget is bound to have parts we, as Democrats, will object to and parts we will be in favor of. The same goes for the reverse scenario. The Trump 2018 budget is no different.

Let us begin with the positives, according to a handy Washington Post infographic. The Department of Veterans Affairs will see a 6 percent increase in funding in order to modernize its information services and help more of those who have fought to protect this country. Good. The HHS will see more funding for fighting the opioid crisis ravaging the Rust Belt. Awesome. The FBI, by way of the DoJ, will receive more federal funds for firearm background checks. Incredible. Even the dreaded California Liberals will be happy to know the Interior is slated to have an increase in funds dedicated to fighting wildfires. These are increases in the budget that need to occur, no one will disagree.

And then we read on.

In order to increase funding to Defense, the DHS, and the VA, the Teflon Don proposes to cut funding to: the Departments of State, Agriculture, Labor, HHS, Commerce, Education, HUD, Transportation, Interior, Treasury, and Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, and NASA.

Nineteen federal agencies, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), and the U.S. Institute of Peace, are to be cut entirely. Gone.

Okay, so it’s bad. But how bad? Let’s dive into some specifics.

$200 million cut from Women, Infants, and Children nutritional assistance

$3.7 billion cut from teacher training and after-school programs

A “SIGNIFICANT” cut to federal work-study for college students

An elimination of Meals-on-Wheels funding because it “doesn’t work”.

And, naturally, American (not Mexican) funding for one Trump-brand Wall

Is all hope lost? Maybe not.

Democrats’ best friends in fighting against this budget will come from two groups they are not historically or recently friendly with: Republicans, and rural voters.

The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have survived assaults in the past, first by Ronald Reagan in 1981, and again by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1994, yet they’re still here. Today, several Republicans are willing to stand for the continuation of federal arts funding. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a state that has received more than $18 million in federal artistic grants since 1995, said in a statement, “I believe we can find a way to commit to fiscal responsibility while continuing to support the important benefits that N.E.A. and N.E.H. provide.”

The Appalachian Regional Commission, which “traces its roots to West Virginia”, will also face significant opposition in its elimination. In 2015, the ARC was reauthorized by a bipartisan bill sponsored originally by Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Sen. Manchin (D-WV), who, though having stoked much ire on the left, is unlikely to follow along with the President on the elimination of this agency.

If only there was a way to somehow, someway, give the federal government a little more cash. A way without raising taxes, without cutting programs.

Oh, wait.

As the Independent reports, if Pres. Trump were to stop golfing every opportunity he took and stopped spending so much time at his precious “Southern White House” (oops, wrong link), he would save the federal government SIX HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS over the next four years. That’s $600,000,000, slightly above the $597 million spent on the National Endowment for the Arts ($152m), the US Interagency Council on Homelessness ($4m), the Senior Community Service Employment Program ($434m), and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars ($11m).

That’s right: just by living where the President of the United States is meant to live, Trump could prevent cutting funding to the arts, student grants, senior citizens, and the homeless. But heaven forbid, that wouldn’t be “compassionate”.

Perhaps the proposed increase in defense spending is necessary, as the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the headline: “Tillerson says diplomacy with North Korea has ‘failed’; Pyongyang warns of war”. So there’s that.

For more, there’s always Last Week Tonight.

On the Obamacare Replacement

By Sam Joyce

Democrats are understandably up in arms about the newly released GOP plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—the bill would do nothing less than attempt to undo the signature legislative accomplishment of the previous Democratic President, and in the process force millions of people to either pay more for healthcare or go without. For mildly less altruistic reasons, a sizable number of Republicans have also come out against this bill. The legislation does not go as far as many conservatives would like, as it keeps most elements of the Affordable Care Act intact (for now). Some of the signature provisions of the ACA, including the prohibition on insurers denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions, the provision allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26, and the limits on out-of-pocket maximums would remain under the GOP plan. There are a lot of tax cuts, some pretty concerning changes to Medicaid, cuts to essential public health funding, and the elimination of the ACA’s individual mandate, but it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as an outright repeal of the ACA. That, however, doesn’t mean there’s not genuine reason to be worried.

A central portion of the legislation is the same sort of policy proposals pushed by Republicans since time immemorial: more tax cuts for the very rich, saving the top 0.1% nearly $200,000 each annually. This is a problem, because some of the most popular parts of the ACA that would remain intact (like the pre-existing conditions provision) are also the most expensive. The repealed tax provisions (including the ‘Cadillac tax’ on high-cost insurance plans and the Additional Medicare Tax on high-income taxpayers, among others) amount to $593.7 billion in revenue over the next ten years, and would shorten the projected lifespan of the Medicare trust fund. The cuts to other areas in the bill do not exactly appear to cover the lost revenue. It’s difficult to see how the legislation will be revenue-neutral barring massive cuts to Medicaid.

That appears to be what the bill tries to do. While it would harm the federal budget, it appears to reserve its most devastating impact for state and hospital budgets through its changes to Medicaid. In 2020, the bill would effectively eliminate the ACA’s Medicaid expansion (shifting $253 billion in costs to the states) while also changing Medicaid to a per-capita block grant, adjusted annually based on the medical consumer price index (M-CPI). This is a problem, as Medicaid spending has typically outpaced M-CPI growth, meaning the legislation would amount to a $116 billion annual cut to Medicaid over the next ten years. Those costs, totaling around $370 billion, would be shifted to the states, which will presumably respond with large cuts to Medicaid, further increasing the number of uninsured. Other provisions, including a requirement that states re-determining eligiblity for people on Medicaid every six months, the elimination of Medicaid’s retroactive eligibility provisions, and, crucially, the elimination of Medicaid coverage for workers with coverage gaps will further contribute to millions losing coverage. Standard & Poor’s estimates that the bill will cause around 4 to 6 million people currently enrolled in Medicaid to lose their health insurance coverage.

Additionally, there are some particularly disturbing cuts to public health funding. The bill would eliminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides around $1 billion annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Acting CDC director Anne Schuchat noted that the bulk of the funding affected goes to identifying and responding to new outbreaks and controling healthcare-associated infections, while the CDC’s own documents show that money from the fund pays for around 40% of the CDC’s immunization program. Collectively, investments in public health are only around 3% of US healthcare spending, yet the Republican proposal specifically targets public health spending to make up part of the deficit incurred by the bill’s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Most concerning, however, is the fact that the bill’s repeal of the individual mandate will accelerate the ‘death spiral’ currently underway in the ACA insurance exchanges. The legislation creates what’s known as a ‘continuous coverage requirement,’ replacing the individual mandate (buy health insurance or pay a penalty) with a system that would allow insurers to charge 30% higher premiums for 12 months to people who allow their coverage to lapse for 63 days; in most cases, this would reduce the penalty for going without health insurance. In essence, the legislation reduces the incentive for healthy people (with lower annual healthcare costs) to purchase insurance, which causes the average cost per enrollee and thus the cost of health insurance premiums to rise, by 30% or more in 2018. That obviously creates a stronger incentive for healthy people to drop their health insurance coverage. Once people drop their coverage, they will be hit by the same 30% penalty no matter when they re-enroll, and so they will have no incentive to buy coverage until they get so sick that they are unable to avoid purchasing insurance. Accelerating is an important word, as the individual marketplaces are already showing signs of a death spiral. The markets, in essence, need to be fixed or they will collapse. This bill accelerates the drive towards that collapse, and in the process makes insurance unaffordable for millions of people. It is important to note that this is not a problem unique to the Republican plan; the weak penalties for ignoring the individual mandate in the ACA means that the system is already trapped in what Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt identifies as a mild version of a death spiral. The ACA is nowhere near a perfect bill, and a legislative fix to prevent the collapse of the exchanges is probably necessary within the next five years. The problem with the Republican proposal is that it not only doesn’t solve the problem, but makes it worse.

This is amplified by the way in which the bill shifts around the health insurance tax credits created by the ACA to help low-income individuals afford insurance coverage. The subsidies are cut (by around 36%), and shifted from being based on income to being based on age, which makes it harder for poorer people to afford insurance. This especially impacts older poor people, as while the subsidies increases with age ($2000 for a 27-year-old, $3000 for a 40-year-old, $4000 for a 60-year-old), another provision of the bill increases the age bands (the difference between the premiums an insurance company can charge younger and older people) from 3:1 to 5:1, which means insurance gets slightly cheaper for young people and much more expensive for old people (particularly those in high-cost states). The AARP has estimated that, for a 64-year-old earning $15,000 a year, the cumulative impact of the legislation would increase their premium by $8,400, while other estimates suggest the average increase for all enrollees would be around $2,409 per enrolleeS&P estimates that this would result in 2 to 4 million people losing their health insurance, while Tricia Neuman, director of the program on Medicare policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, explains that the legislation would lead to many seniors working longer to be able to afford healthcare during retirement. The only real winner here is, as with most Republican policy proposals, people who make a lot of money (who are currently ineligible for the income-based tax credits). Lower-income people, meanwhile, will find it impossible to purchase adequate health insurance coverage.

The Republican plan for health insurance strips insurance from fifteen million people, makes healthcare more expensive for poor and middle-class Americans, and exacerbates the existing flaws of the Affordable Care Act. The legislation is an actuarial and a moral catastrophe. Democrats must do all they can to fight back.