Sunday, July 23, 2017

American Cartoonists Meet The Republican "Healthcare" Scam Head On, Part 2


-by Noah

One of the most famous episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone deals with a malevolent race of aliens who land here on Earth and seemingly promise a utopian future. They bring promises of advance technologies and cures for disease. All we earthlings have to do in exchange is send some of us humans to their planet while some aliens set up home here. All sounds hunky-dory. Peace! Brotherhood! A brilliant future for all!

The lead or head alien ambassador is an alien right out of central casting. He’s 9 feet tall and has a classic enlarged cranium area that presumably houses his expanded mental powers. He even carries with him, a gift, a book entitled To Serve Man! How wonderful! How glorious! They have our best interests at heart! What nice people these aliens are!

Naturally, a certain number of gullible earthlings blindly flock to the spaceships that will convey them to the utopian planet of their dreams, while our best translators work on deciphering the gift that is To Serve Man.

To Serve Man, of course, turns out to be a cookbook. All those who have boarded the ships are doomed to be a succulent feast on the home planet dinner tables of the aliens.

I didn’t catch that alien ambassador’s name, and, while he certainly doesn’t look like Messrs. Trump, McConnell, and Ryan, he might as well be a conglomeration of all three and the rest of the Republican Party. Put a Make America Great Again hat on his domed alien head. That makes as much sense as Senor Trumpanzee wearing one.

The Trumpcare plans for what those of both parties in Washington like to condescendingly call ordinary Americans aren’t much different than the plans of their fictitious un-human, inhuman alien brothers seen on The Twilight Zone.

The only difference between the plans of Serling’s fictitious aliens and Trumpcare is that, at least as far as we know, Republicans don’t plan on cooking and eating us after they kill us all. A month ago, an earlier version of their plan earmarked 22 million Americans for poor health, disease, and death by stealing away their health insurance so they could give away a trillion dollars of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to their wealthy friends and corporate benefactors. That handout is really what Trumpcare is all about. Calling it a healthcare plan is just an uber-cynical and deceptive marketing ploy. To this day, even the so-called liberal media insists on calling this republican plan a healthcare plan when it is nothing of the sort. Trumpcare is the Republican Party’s To Serve Man.

With all of this in mind, and yet another McConnell-decreed Trumpcare vote coming up this week, I thought it appropriate to do a Part 2 of my late June post bout what America’s cartoonists have to say about Trumpcare, especially, since the latest version of Trumpcare now earmarks not 22 million but now 32 million Americans for misery; fat lot the mass-murderers of the Republican Party care, but, hey, death and misery is what the Republican Party is all about, and best at. If this vote fails, expect yet another new version. Do I hear 42 million! How about 52 Million!

Here are some of the latest cartoons on the subject:

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GOP Healthcare Woes Are Getting Worse, Not Better-- Parliamentarian Questions Trumpcare Framework


House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) is having a fit again. If I was in the FBI and if someone blows up the Senate with a bomb, I'd look at Meadows' alibi very, very closely. He's freaking out over the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruling that there are as many as a dozen parts of TrumpCare that violate the Byrd Rule and that they can't be passed with a 51 majority and would need a full 60 votes if the Democrats object-- which they do. Meadows said, for example, taking the provisions defending Planned Parenthood out of TrumpCare, would make it "almost impossible" to pass the bill back through the House, To him and other far right extremists the Hyde restrictions on tax credits are a must. Pity.

The ruling specifies that "abortion restrictions on the premium tax credit and the small business tax credit, and the language defunding Planned Parenthood, violate the Byrd Rule. Further, the 'Buffalo Bailout' which was used to secure votes in the House has also been found to violate the Byrd Rule-- threatening other state-specific buy-offs." Those are all "sweeteners" to make the bill palatable for the extreme right fringe of the Republican Party.

The NY Times reported that "Democrats made clear they would seize on the findings." Bernie, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee: "The parliamentarian’s decision today proves once again that the process Republicans have undertaken to repeal the Affordable Care Act and throw 22 million Americans off of health insurance is a disaster." One of the no-no provisions "would penalize people who go without health insurance by requiring them to wait six months before their coverage could begin. Insurers would generally be required to impose the waiting period on people who lacked coverage for more than about two months in the prior year... The waiting period provision is fundamental to the working of the bill. Because the legislation would end the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that most Americans have health insurance, the waiting period was designed to ensure that people could not simply wait to get sick before they purchased a policy."

Senate Republican leaders plan to begin debate next week on repealing the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, which has provided health insurance to roughly 20 million Americans.

At the moment, Republican leaders lack the votes to ensure passage of their bill to repeal and replace the law, and they are still modifying it in hopes of gaining support from uncommitted Republican senators. All Democrats are expected to oppose the repeal bill.

Under the procedure that Republicans are using to speed passage of the health care bill, senators can object to a provision if it does not change federal spending or revenue or if the budgetary effects are “merely incidental” to some policy objective. The parliamentarian serves as a sort of referee, determining whether specific provisions of the bill comply with Senate rules.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, emphasized that “this is guidance, not a ruling.” The parliamentarian “provided guidance,” and that guidance will help inform subsequent drafts of the legislation, he said, suggesting that the bill could be revised to answer her questions.

The Senate’s presiding officer usually follows advice from the parliamentarian. But the full Senate can vote to overturn those decisions.

The parliamentarian also objected to a narrowly written provision that would shift Medicaid costs from New York’s counties to its state government. This provision, tagged by opponents as the “Buffalo Bailout,” was included in a repeal bill passed by the House in May to secure the votes of Republican House members from upstate New York.

The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, suggested that other provisions written specifically for different states could also be at risk.

“This will greatly tie the majority leader’s hands as he tries to win over reluctant Republicans with state-specific provisions,” Mr. Schumer said. “We will challenge every one of them.”

Even before the parliamentarian’s blow, Trump administration officials and Republican leaders were struggling to win over moderate Republicans with a new infusion of money to help people who would lose Medicaid under the Senate health care bill.

Senators are set to return to the Capitol on Monday, and Republican leaders are eager to begin debate in the Senate on health care, perhaps as early as Tuesday. It is unclear they have the votes needed to start the debate, let alone to ensure passage of a bill to repeal and replace the health care law.

In their latest bid for agreement on a plan to undo the health care law, Senate Republicans are weighing a proposal to add funds, perhaps $200 billion, to the bill to help low-income people transition from Medicaid to private insurance. But Republican leaders must balance the interests of senators from states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act with the goals of fiscal conservatives, who see the repeal bill as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rein in the growth of one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs.

“You can only go so far, and then you lose votes on one side where we want to make reforms within Medicaid,” Senator Michael Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, said after a lengthy meeting this week with administration officials and other Republican senators. “And if you don’t go far enough, then you’ve got folks that are concerned that we’re making the changes too quick. So it’s that balancing act of trying to keep everybody on board and feeling comfortable.”

The Congressional Budget Office says the Senate repeal bill would cut projected federal Medicaid spending by more than $750 billion in the coming decade, leaving 15 million fewer people on Medicaid in 2026, compared with the enrollment expected under current law.

Those cuts have caused deep concern to Republican senators from states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, including Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

“I would like to do more to help people at the low end of the income scale afford private health insurance,” Mr. Portman said, noting that more than 700,000 people in his state had gained coverage through the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Ms. Capito, in a video message on Friday, said that many of her constituents had been hurt by the Affordable Care Act, but that “many West Virginians have benefited from our state’s decision to expand Medicaid” under the health law.

“I have said all along that we need to both repeal and replace Obamacare, and I’m not giving up on that goal,” she said. But, she added, “We aren’t there yet.”

Opponents of repeal, including consumer advocates and health care providers in every state, are keeping up the pressure on Republican senators.

AARP called on senators to vote against the procedural motion to begin debate, while the American Medical Association panned the repeal measure and an alternate Senate bill that would repeal the health law without providing a replacement.

“Recent revisions do not correct core elements that will lead to millions of Americans losing health insurance coverage with a resulting decline in both health status and outcomes,” Dr. James L. Madara, the association’s chief executive, wrote to Senate leaders on Friday. The Senate legislation, he said, would undermine state Medicaid programs and weaken the individual insurance market.

Save My Care, a group that is fighting the repeal effort, is targeting Ms. Capito, Ms. Murkowski and Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, with new television commercials urging them to vote against repealing the health law.

“Senator Capito promised to protect our health care,” one of the ads says. “Now Washington insiders are pressuring her to back down.”

On the flip side, Republican senators risk angering conservative supporters-- as well as President Trump-- if they stand in the way of the repeal effort, perhaps by opposing the procedural motion to begin debate that is planned for next week.

Painter Nancy Ohanian is... prescient

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What Happened To Trump's Promises About Massive Infrastructure Spending?


We'll look at the mess the Trump Regime has made of infrastructure in a moment. First though, I want to highlight one crucial part of that in my part of the country. The Republican-led Congress and the Trump Regime are screwing with California, Oregon and Washington over the earthquake early warning system-- enough time for people to take cover or pull their cars over-- the federal government was committed to, something NPR highlighted this week. An early warning system along the West Coast from the Canadian border to the Mexican border has been in the works for over a decade and is in beta testing now. NPR reported that Thomas Heaton, an engineering seismologist at the California Institute of Technology, has worked on this idea since 1985. 
“It's running right here in my office, and it has been running in my office for about 10 years, and I run it in my home,” Heaton said.

The sample earthquake scenario he pulled up on his computer showed a map of California with seismic waves radiating from the epicenter of a quake. Alarms rang, and an electronic voice called out a verbal warning, “Earthquake. Earthquake. Moderate shaking expected in six seconds.”

How such alerts would be sent to the public still needs to be ironed out, with some hoping warnings could be sent to mobile phones located in soon-to-be affected areas.

Heaton said a full rollout along the West Coast would take about 1,200 sensors. So far, there are 800 installed, half of which are in Southern California. Limited public rollout of the warning alert system has been planned for next year, but that depends on continued federal funding. The roughly $10 million the U.S. Geological Survey gets for the program would be wiped out under Trump’s proposed budget.

“If it goes through, there will not be an early warning system,” Heaton said. “I'm pretty confident about that.”

Los Angeles has already spent millions of dollars on its own to install its warning system sensors.

“We’re going to raise our own money and try to get this done, even if the federal government doesn’t help,” said Jeff Gorell, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety.

But L.A. can’t fund the full estimated cost, $16 million a year, to cover California and the whole Pacific Northwest. Lucy Jones, scientist emerita at USGS, where she helped get the early warning system going, said earthquake warnings need to come from the federal government, because research centers don’t want to own the system.

“The universities have uniformly said 'We don't want the liability of releasing these messages,'” Jones said.

The proposed federal cuts are getting pushback from Congress. A House subcommittee voted last week to keep funding at current levels. The funding proposal has more votes ahead in the House and Senate. What actually shakes out of the budget approval process is anyone’s guess, but California Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Corona who chairs the subcommittee, said it has wide support.
Calvert, a Trump rubber-stamp says he has "bipartisan agreement [and] "We’re moving ahead"-- at least on the Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on Interior and Environment. He's the only Californian on the subcommittee, although Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole is a member and fracking-related earthquakes are shaking up his constituents lately.

Ted Lieu, who represents the west side of L.A. is concerned about Trump's decision to end the funding. This afternoon he said, "To borrow the President's phrase, not funding earthquake early warning systems would be 'dumb as a rock.' Such systems will save countless lives. The President's lack of an infrastructure plan shows the continued chaos at the White House. Cutting infrastructure funding with no plan will harm the American people. That's why Congress needs to pass the 21st Century New Deal for Jobs Act that I wrote, which will provide 2 trillion dollars of much needed infrastructure funding and create millions of jobs."

The Trump Regime's entire attitude towards infrastructure in basically the same-- stop spending money on anything and everything. Tom Scheck reported the story for NPR's Marketplace last week-- and who gets hurt the most? Folks in the rural areas who backed Trump most strongly in the election: Trump's desire for private infrastructure money will narrow his choices to mostly urban projects. The ignoramus in the White House insists that "business-- not government-- can deliver better services to Americans," which has sent officials in states, cities and counties scurrying for private money for public infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. They looked at 46 transportation and water-related projects in 23 states where private money-- "investment opportunities"-- is what the Trump Regime is pushing for.

We asked two Orange County candidates whose districts are plagued with infrastructure problems. Kia Hamadanchy is running for the seat held by Trump rubber stamp Mimi Walters do doesn't live in the district and isn't really aware about what people in CA-45 face. He told us that "This country-- and Orange County in particular-- needs immediate and dramatic investment in our infrastructure. Our roads and bridges are in an incredible state of disrepair and every dollar we fail to spend today is going to lead to an even higher cost down the road. Donald Trump promised time and time during his campaign he would invest in and fix infrastructure and more then six months into his administration we have yet to see a plan to do so. What we need is the right kind of investment that actually addresses the problems we have in this country and the answer certainly isn't more privatization and the selling off of our public assets. The solution must be driven by the federal government, working in concert with state and local governments."

Goal Thermometer And Sam Jammal, the progressive running against Ed Royce in CA-39 told us that "Every voter-- no matter whether they lean right or left-- has the basic expectation that government will invest in infrastructure. Unfortunately, we are years behind in these investments thank to a Republican Congress that has ignored the basics. Trump made his promise knowing full well that voters expect roads without potholes, safe bridges and the deployment of new infrastructure to modernize our economy. But, like so much else, his rhetoric doesn't meet reality. We need a real investment in infrastructure that moves us towards 2030, not backwards. To me, this means making sure we have our bridges modernized, roads paved and investments in clean energy infrastructure that promotes electric vehicles and renewable energy. This will create jobs and ensure economic growth. We lead when we invest in our country and right now, we aren't doing that. Just take a ride on any of our freeways in Orange County and its clear we aren't investing in the basics. Voters rightfully expect more and infrastructure must be a priority."

Trump may love it but "privately financed projects have proven unpopular in at least two states after citizens learned they had to pay higher fees and tolls to private investors. And a federal loan program Trump is pushing to broaden has lost money on three projects that featured private investment." On top of this, most of the projects private capital is willing too invest in "serve high population, urban centers. That means rural voters, who helped elect Trump, could be left out of the potential infrastructure boom unless he either directs a significant amount of taxpayer money to rural projects or convinces investors to steer money there."
Forty of the 46 projects on the list are transportation related. The remaining six are water projects. Eight of the projects are entirely private enterprises with limited or no government involvement.

The others rely on a financing mechanism known as a public-private partnership, which can include a variety of models. The most common is a government receiving upfront financing to build or fix a project in exchange for either payments to the investors or rights to the investors allowing them to earn money on the project from, say, charging tolls on a highway.

...13 of the 46 projects on the list collected by the White House since November are road and bridge projects. That's more than half the total number of highways-- 21-- that relied on private financing between 1989 and 2012, according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Budget Office.

Trump has not released specifics about what he calls his $1 trillion infrastructure plan or the timing, but he has emphatically embraced public-private partnerships as a solution to a problem that he's identified as critical to America and what most political observers say could deliver a badly needed political win.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's infrastructure poor marks in a report card released earlier this year. The group said it will cost $4.6 trillion to address the nation's roads, bridges, ports and water systems.

The White House budget plan clearly indicates that private investment will be a strategy. "Providing more federal funding, on its own, is not the solution to our infrastructure challenges," the document said.

...It isn't certain, though, how many projects will get financed with private money.

Investors may balk at a proposal because there isn't a revenue guarantee. Government officials may also decide that it's more cost effective to use traditional borrowing rather than private financing.

What's clear is that investors are eagerly moving to put more money into infrastructure. It's considered a safer and steadier investment than the stock market, yet has higher returns than bonds.

Wall Street is already lining up. Global Infrastructure Partners closed on a $15.8 billion fund in the first quarter of 2017, according to the data analysis firm Preqin.

The fund was the largest infrastructure fund at the time but was soon surpassed in May when Saudi Arabia announced it would invest $20 billion in a $40 billion infrastructure fund run by Blackstone Group, a private equity firm.

Other fund managers, state and national pension funds and foreign governments are also looking to profit. Preqin found $71 billion ready for infrastructure spending in North America even before the Saudi pledge.

"There has been reasonable investment within infrastructure in the U.S., so it's more of whether we're going to see a real explosion going forward," said Tom Carr, a Preqin analyst.

But private financing comes with risks and drawbacks:
Last month, Texas-- an early adopter of privatizing transportation projects-- rejected efforts to authorize additional private investment.
Private investors in road projects in South Carolina, Texas, California and Indiana have declared bankruptcy. In some instances, the bankruptcies resulted in a financial loss for the federal government.
A 2015 Congressional Budget Office study found that private financing will speed up the construction of a road but doesn't reduce overall costs or increase with other transportation spending.
Rural communities may lose out since they don't have the population willing to finance projects that can cost billions.
And critics of privatization warn against selling rights to what has long been considered a public asset. They also say private backers are looking for investment returns that could make the projects more expensive to the taxpayer.

Donald Cohen, executive director of the anti-privatization group In the Public Interest, called Trump's vision an attempt to "sell off America" to Wall Street investors. He said private investors will collect their returns by creating toll roads, increasing fees or finding other sources of revenue to get a return on their investment. "There may be lots of folks who actually want to rebuild America but their top job is to generate returns, and they're going to do pretty well under Trump's plan," Cohen said.

Despite the risks, the Trump Administration continues to push for increased private investment. "The private sector can provide valuable benefits for the delivery of infrastructure, through better procurement methods, market discipline, and a long-term focus on maintaining assets," a White House budget document said.

It's unclear, though, when the president will roll out the specifics of his plan or how it will fit into a congressional agenda bogged down by a stalled health care bill, a desire to overhaul the tax code, a measure to lift the debt ceiling and a budget plan that includes infrastructure spending cuts.

Kathrin Heitmann, an infrastructure analyst with Moody's, said that's why she doesn't expect an impact from Trump's plan in the short-term. "We are very cautious that the $1 trillion infrastructure investment can be realized," she said.

Heitmann also pointed that it will take a long time for projects to get started even if Trump's plan becomes law later this year. The lag between funding approval and project completion could mean that nothing substantial happens until the end of Trump's term in 2020. "It looks like that some of this funding will only peak at the end of the current administration's term," she said.

Adding to the uncertainty, public records show Trump's top infrastructure adviser is pushing states to finance construction projects without any help from the federal government, a quiet shift in rhetoric that reflects the president's onerous budget realities. That could be a blow to local governments since many have historically relied on federal funding to complete infrastructure projects.

...Larger population centers are the primary focus for private investment. Of the 46 projects that could rely on private investment, just two are located in and would serve rural America. Both are in Alaska.

Eight projects are located in rural communities but primarily serve urban population centers, including two privately financed projects that would allow companies to ship water from rural parts of California and New Mexico to urban areas.

The lack of financing opportunities for rural America is a bipartisan concern in Congress. Lawmakers worry that private money will chase the highest return, typically found in higher population centers instead of financing the neediest projects.

"There are thousands of miles of highway and tens of thousands of bridges that need work that can't make money," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "No private sector person is going to buy them and repair them, because there isn't enough volume."

...Meanwhile, the nation's largest metropolitan areas are receiving unsolicited bids from private funds.

In November, voters in Los Angeles County approved a new half-cent sales tax and extended an existing half-cent sales tax. The increase is projected to raise $120 billion over 40 years. Even before the measure passed, private investors submitted unsolicited proposals to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Authority.

California Gov. Jerry Brown asked the Trump Administration to include three Los Angeles County transit projects in its infrastructure plan. They are a 9-mile extension of an existing transit line, a connector to the airport and a bus rapid-transit line.

Experts say financing projects like those in Los Angeles County are perfect for investors looking to capitalize on long-term projects. The city is the second largest in the country, and county voters just approved a long-term funding stream that's attractive to private investors.

...Private financing is becoming a more attractive option as cities, counties and states grapple with tight budgets, a transportation system that is costly to maintain and a desire to build new projects that serve a growing population. The financing mechanism also allows state officials to finance projects without raising gas taxes.

"States are becoming more enamored of this because they're able to deliver projects sooner," said Shailen Bhatt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. "It allows you to advance a project without necessarily, say, raising your gas tax."

But Bhatt says there are only so many projects that can be financed with private money. And he said federal and state officials should not ignore a gas tax increase as an option. Since Colorado is an early adopter in public-private partnerships, Bhatt would prefer Trump focus his plan on directly funding projects.

"If the president's plan was just more financing opportunities, well, we're already moving on that path on our own," he said.

The trade group for the national construction industry is also directing most of its efforts on states when it comes to public-private partnerships and infrastructure investment.

Ben Brubeck, an executive with Associated Builders and Contractors, said his organization has been pushing for an infrastructure package on the federal level but said the states are where he sees the most action. "If you look at the deal flow here in the United States, it's happening at the state level and not really happening at the federal level," he said.

Since President Trump was elected, anticipation has grown that the real estate billionaire would deliver on his promise to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure. He's met with union leaders, state and local officials and private business leaders trying to build support.

He's also assembled an infrastructure team led by New York real estate investors Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth. LeFrak has personal ties to the president, and Roth and Trump have a business relationship.

In May, the White House released Trump's budget proposal, which included spending $200 billion in "federal outlays to the infrastructure initiative," but didn't specify how the money will be spent.

And from some departments, Trump cut infrastructure funding.

He proposed a 13 percent reduction to the U.S. Department of Transportation general fund budget, eliminating funds for new transit projects and gutting a $499 million grant program that has paid for road, bridge and transit projects. The plan also eliminates a $500 million water and wastewater loan and grant program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but boosts funding for water and wastewater infrastructure at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since then, there have been few other details. In June, during a week devoted to promoting his ideas about infrastructure, Trump pledged $25 billion to rural projects and $15 billion to spur what he called "transformative" projects. An accompanying document didn't elaborate on the spending or say whether the funds are included in his $200 billion request.

And despite pleas by White House officials that journalists cover the president's policy agenda instead of allegations of Russian interference in last year's election, they didn't return repeated requests for comment about Trump's infrastructure plan.

The lack of specifics regarding infrastructure-- and a budget that weakens infrastructure-related programs-- have left state and local government officials wondering when a plan will be released and whether it will benefit them.

Documents show White House officials were still working to craft a policy in March despite a campaign rollout in October, a two-month presidential transition that focused on assembling wish lists from states and multiple meetings since the inauguration to discuss policy.

During a conference call with state leaders on March 23, D.J. Gribbin, the president's infrastructure policy adviser, was reluctant to embrace any plan and emphasized that he was only speaking for himself, not for Trump or other White House officials, according to a readout of the call.

And adding to the uncertainty, notes from the call-- captured in an email from Adam Zarrin, a policy adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper-- show that Gribbin wants states to build projects without federal help. "They really are most excited ‘about projects [states] are paying for' and not the federal government. Want states to help themselves," read Zarrin's email.

Gribbin did not respond to an interview request.

The White House has aggressively courted states on infrastructure. In December, Trump's transition team requested a list of "shovel-ready" projects from governors. The White House also met in June with a group of county officials, mayors and Native American leaders to discuss infrastructure needs. The vast majority of those in attendance were Republicans.

Through the National Governor's Association, governors submitted a list of projects to the White House. Union officials, infrastructure consultants and campaign aides also submitted requests. It isn't certain whether White House officials are relying on those lists as it crafts its policy.

Others say they weren't approached to submit a list of projects. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors through June, said his organization wasn't solicited. He's skeptical that any plan relying solely on private investment will work.

"I wouldn't get overly optimistic that the private sector is going to come to the rescue for America's infrastructure projects," Cornett said. "I don't think that's likely. And if that's the hope and dream, then we're probably going to be waiting a long, long time."

Cornett said that it's often cheaper for government officials to finance projects through government borrowing. He says cities, counties and states with a solid credit rating will likely get a cheaper rate than the private sector.

...Texas State Highway 130 offers a vivid example of how Trump's vision for infrastructure could spark projects. It also shows how some Texans have revolted against toll roads that have been privately financed.

In 2012, Gov. Rick Perry appeared at the grand opening of the highway. His speech focused on how the 41-mile stretch of road between San Antonio and Austin would reduce congestion on another busy freeway, Interstate 35. Perry, who now serves as Energy Secretary in the Trump Administration, also targeted critics of privatization.

"When we debated this concept back in 2003, there was no shortage of individuals both inside and outside the Capitol that said it wouldn't work," Perry said at the time. "Today's proof that the concept is complete, and it can be seen in concrete and asphalt."

His vision focused on the financing of public and private toll roads to spur road construction. The record shows Perry was successful.

A state report last year showed 53 toll roads spanning 671 miles in Texas. Many were built in the past two decades. Some, like State Highway 130, are privately operated. Others are managed by local governments or the state.

State officials claim that 10 public-private partnerships established since 2003 have generated $17 billion in construction. And Marc Williams, deputy executive director of the state's transportation department, said public-private financing was critical to speedy completion.

But swift, private construction and tolling doesn't guarantee a healthy return on investment. In 2016, the SH 130 Concession Company, which built the highway, declared bankruptcy. The firm-- owned by Cintra, a Spanish company, and a consortium of Australian entities-- cited less traffic than projected, according to bankruptcy records.

The combination hasn't proven politically popular, either.

Critics say the financial failure should be a warning to the Trump Administration about the unpopularity of toll roads in Texas. "If you want to lose a voter, the fastest way you do it is to take $300 or $400 out of their pocket every month," said Terri Hall, who runs Texans for Toll-Free Highways.

Hall, a Republican who says she voted for Trump, intends to lobby against increased private investment in transportation. She said Trump and others who back privatization will have a political problem on their hands. "They're going to have a rude awakening if they think that this is going to be something acceptable to the average Joe," she said.

Hall's lobbying appears to have been successful in Texas. Gov. Gregg Abbott opposes more toll roads, and the Texas House of Representatives defeated a bill in May that would have allowed communities to negotiate private financing for 10 projects.

No matter; Texas communities seem undaunted and state transportation officials are still lobbying the Trump Administration to include an expansion of I-635 in its infrastructure plans.

Douglas Athas, mayor of Garland, Texas, said private investors are interested in expanding the highway from 10 lanes to 15 lanes. He said the $1.6 billion proposal would ensure the project is finished more quickly. The program relied on allowing the investors to collect tolls on a few of the managed lanes that run near existing lanes.

Like the federal government, Texas has not raised the gas tax since the early 1990s, which has slowed new road construction that's led to congestion as the state's population soars.

"Politicians are scrambling to solve a problem," said David Ellis, a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and manager of the Infrastructure Investment Analysis Program. He said some toll roads, specifically in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, have been effective. After all, said Ellis, while no one likes paying a toll, the alternative is waiting in traffic.

Drivers along SH130 say they've been forced to weigh those options.

D.J. Shaw, a daily commuter on that Texas highway, said he hates paying $15 a day in tolls to drive from Seguin to Del Valle. But he said it's better than spending an extra 30 minutes on I-35. "It costs so much money and there's no other way to go," he said. "Nobody likes sitting on I-35 so they kind of got you cornered."

Williams, the state transportation official, said the legislative action means it's unlikely that any new toll roads will be financed over the next two years. But he's confident his department will secure federal funding when Trump's infrastructure plan is introduced. Williams also said Texas will spend as much as $3 billion a year more on transportation projects after voters approved a ballot measure dedicating general fund money to projects.

...[C]ritics and even some supporters of public-private partnerships warn that the public loses control over infrastructure assets when a deal is done. A citizen upset with a road project or a new toll, for example, can't complain to an elected official and get relief.

"When you enter into the P3, you now have a third party that is now in the process," said Aubrey Layne, Jr., Virginia's Secretary of Transportation.

Unwinding a deal, he says, no longer means taking a vote in the Legislature or at a city council meeting. Instead, private investors want something in return if a government reopens a contract.

Layne said governments going into P3 agreements need contractual precision and an amount of prescience because deals could last decades.

Moreover, attorneys and financial consultants are critical to protect the public's interest, he said, because private investors are typically armed with savvy financial analysts, lawyers and contractors who have negotiated these complex deals in the past.

Cities and counties, particularly those with smaller population centers, may not have the same experience or budget to retain a high level of expertise to protect their interests. "These are some of the most sophisticated investors in the world you're going to be negotiating with," Layne said, cautioning that naivete will result in a bad deal for the public.

Cohen from In the Public Interest analyzes the choice more cynically, saying that too many policy leaders look for private investment instead of making the difficult choice of raising taxes. He said there's little worry because the policy leaders often leave office before there's blowback from an increase in fees or tolls. "They don't have to answer the question in eight years about what happened to the tolls when they're tripled," Cohen said.

In fact, a key selling point of public-private partnerships has been the financial protection of taxpayers. The private sector typically assumes most of the risk in the deal. When the private backers of the Indiana toll road filed for bankruptcy in 2014, for example, taxpayers there didn't see a loss.

However, that's not always the case.

At least three times in the past seven years taxpayers have been on the hook for business failures, each stemming from a federal loan program-- called the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA)-- which President Trump wants to grow.

The program helps finance transportation projects through direct loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit. In budget documents, the Trump Administration claims TIFIA is a success.

"One dollar of TIFIA subsidy leverages roughly $40 in project value. If the amount of TIFIA subsidy was increased to $1 billion annually for 10 years, that could leverage up to $140 billion in credit assistance, and approximately $424 billion in total investment," the document states.

But TIFIA loans have put taxpayers at risk:
In 2010, the private investors of the South Bay Expressway in California declared bankruptcy. When the investors emerged from bankruptcy in 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation took a $47 million loss on a $140 million loan that helped finance the road.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation sold a federal loan it held on the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia to private investors at a 59 percent loss. Anthony Foxx, who was the Transportation secretary, said he chose to sell the loan after private investors signaled they were losing money on the nearly 9-mile toll road near Richmond.

And the bankrupt Texas highway-- State Highway 130-- was initially financed with a $430 million federal loan. It emerged from bankruptcy in June with new ownership and $260 million in new financing. The federal government received $16 million for the loan.
The Texas agreement also brings an ironic twist: The investors who insisted the private sector could manage transportation projects better than the public sector will now answer to a new owner: the federal government, which now has a 34 percent stake in the toll road.
"I think you only need to look at Texas to get an idea of what Trump’s infrastructure plan will look like down the road," said Tom Wakely, an economic populist who is running for Texas governor on a progressive platform. "Texas infrastructure, roads, bridges and damns, is to be kind in shambles but if we are telling the truth it is nothing short of FUBAR. Decades of failed Republican policies that emphasized private infrastructure money back by government guarantees over sound fiscal public infrastructure investment have left Texans sitting in traffic for hours.

Tom Wakely 
"A perfect example of this is Texas Toll Road 130. It was by built 130 Concession Co., a joint venture between Cintra, a Spanish developer and Zachry Construction Co., a San Antonio based company. It was build with a half-billion dollars in federal loans and another billion or so in private loans but it is nothing more than a 41 mile highway of broken concrete and promises. It was built by Republican Governor Rick Perry, now Trump’s Energy Secretary. The highway connects San Antonio and Austin but only if you drive a hell out of your way to get there. It causes flooding in nearby towns. It is nothing more than a public albatross and private get rich quick scheme.

"Another example of an infrastructure project here in Texas that is surely headed for bankruptcy is the flawed Vista Ridge pipeline. It is a $3.4 billion water project requiring the construction of a 142 mile pipeline from San Antonio north to rural Burleson County. This transfer of water will be the biggest in Texas history and has been described by financial advisers as one of the U.S.’ largest public-private partnerships in the water sector. To put it bluntly, it is morally wrong to grow a city like San Antonio by taking water from a distant ecosystem which will eventually need that water."

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Ryan Buckles-- Abandons Señor Trumpanzee On Russia Sanctions


You probably recall that back in mid-June the Senate voted 97-2 to impose sanctions of Russia and to prevent Trump from removing them without congressional approval. Congressional Toadie-in-Chief Paul Ryan has-- at least until now-- pleased Trump by preventing the Senate bill from being voted on in the House. Yesterday, Ryan couldn't take the intense pressure and pretty much gave up. Matt Flegenheimer and David Sanger reported for the NY Times that the House and the Senate have come up with a deal to allow the bill to move forward. This puts Señor Trumpanzee, who as everyone now knows, was put into office with the help of Putin, in a very awkward position. Will he veto the bill on behalf of his Kremlin masters-- and risk an override vote-- or will he show Putin, once again, how weak and completely ineffective he is?
Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on sweeping sanctions legislation to punish Russia for its election-meddling and aggression toward its neighbors, they said Saturday, defying the White House’s argument that President Trump needs flexibility to adjust the sanctions to fit his diplomatic initiatives with Moscow.

The new legislation sharply limits the president’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions. At a moment when investigations into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials have cast a shadow over his presidency, Mr. Trump could soon face a bleak decision: veto the bill-- and fuel accusations that he is doing the bidding of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia-- or sign legislation imposing sanctions his administration abhors.

...The House version of the bill includes a small number of changes, technical and substantive, from the Senate legislation, including some made in response to concerns raised by oil and gas companies.

But for the most part, the Republican leadership appears to have rejected most of the White House’s objections. The bill aims to punish Russia not only for interference in the election but also for its annexation of Crimea, continuing military activity in eastern Ukraine and human rights abuses. Proponents of the measure seek to impose sanctions on people involved in human rights abuses, suppliers of weapons to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and those undermining cybersecurity, among others.

Paired with the sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the House version of the bill was set for a vote on Tuesday, according to the office of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the chamber’s majority leader.

On Saturday, the agreement appeared destined for bipartisan, bicameral support.

Senator Ben. Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that though he would have preferred full adoption of the Senate version, “I welcome the House bill, which was the product of intense negotiations.”

He said the legislation would “express solidarity with our closest allies in countering Russian aggression and holding the Kremlin accountable for their destabilizing activities.”

...The delays in the House became a source of deep frustration among some Russia hawks, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, before he left Washington for medical treatment for a brain tumor.

“Pass it, for Christ’s sake,” he said to his House colleagues, as the measure languished last week over technical concerns raised mostly by Republicans.

As House Republican leaders like Speaker Paul D. Ryan chafed at the suggestion that they were doing the White House’s bidding by not taking up the measure immediately, the administration sought to pressure members by insisting that the legislation would unduly hamstring the president.

Officials argued that Mr. Trump would be effectively handcuffed-- deprived of the power to ease or lift the sanctions as he saw fit. The White House pushed to remove language giving Congress the ability to block such actions.

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Trump Isn't The Only One Who Isn't Normal-- Ryan Gets A Much-Needed Bipartisan Slapdown


Nancy Ohanian's Speaker Paul

Thursday, Paul Ryan told reporters that the CBO analysis of Trumpcare is "bogus" and thereby bolstered the Trump Regime's relentless campaign to undermine and destroy American institutional norms.

Congress created the CBO in 1974 in legislation then signed by President Nixon, although the legislation stemmed from a dispute between Congress and Nixon over whether Congress would maintain the power of the purse granted it very specifically in the Constitution and on which Nixon had been encroaching. The purpose was to generate a source of budgetary expertise to aid in writing annual budgets and lessen the legislature’s reliance on the executive branch's completely partisan Office of Management and Budget. And, sure enough, since 1975, the CBO has supplanted the OMB as the authoritative source of information on the economy and the budget in the eyes of Congress, the press, and the public. It's odd to see a Speaker of the House, choosing to fritter away that key power to the executive branch-- especially this particular dysfunctional and horrifyingly anomic regime.

Alice Rivlin served as the first director (1975-1983) and she was followed by Rudolph Penner, Robert Reischauer, June O'Neill, Dan Crippen, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Peter Orszag, and Douglas Elmendorf, who served until the current director, George W. Bush staffer Keith Hall was appointed by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan 9th director in 2015. Hall's predecessors all came to his aid last week with a sharp, succinct letter to Paul Ryan and the other congressional leaders.
The undersigned represent every former Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.

CBO began serving the Congress in 1975. Over the past 42 years CBO has been firmly committed to providing nonpartisan and high-quality analysis--  and that commitment remains as strong and effective today as it has been in the past. Because CBO works for the Congress, and only the Congress, the agency’s analysis addresses the unique needs of legislators.

To meet the standard of nonpartisan objectivity, CBO makes no recommendations about policy, regularly consults with researchers and practitioners with a wide range of views (as can be seen in the agency’s panels of advisers and reviewers for major studies), and enhances its transparency by releasing extensive descriptions of its analytic techniques and forecast record. To produce estimates of high quality, CBO uses its detailed understanding of federal programs and economic conditions, ongoing interactions with government officials and private-sector experts, the best academic research, and the latest available data consistent with the timing of the Congressional budget process.

CBO’s approach produces consistent comparisons of competing legislative proposals and unbiased projections of the impact of policy changes. Unfortunately, even nonpartisan and high-quality analysis cannot always generate accurate estimates. Policy changes are often complex, the economy is dynamic and defies precise prediction, and many policies are modified over time. However, such analysis does generate estimates that are more accurate, on average, than estimates or guesses by people who are not objective and not as well informed as CBO’s analysts.

In sum, relying on CBO’s estimates in the legislative process has served the Congress-- and the American people-- very well during the past four decades. As the House and Senate consider potential policy changes this year and in the years ahead, we urge you to maintain and respect the Congress’s decades-long reliance on CBO’s estimates in developing and scoring bills.

Ryan was willing-- even eager-- to throw Congress' own budgetary arm under the bus for narrow partisan advantage in his fight to destroy the social safety net and take health care away from millions of Americans in the service of lowering taxes on the very rich. Yesterday we reached out to the two most progressive members of the House Buget Committee, Ro Khanna (D-CA) and the Democrats' Vice Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, Pramila Jayapal, (D-WA) about Ryan's little stunt. Pramila told me that "For years, the public has relied on CBOs independent analysis of legislation impacting the budget. It's alarming that Speaker Ryan has passed legislation through the House, like Trumpcare, without the full understanding of its consequences. That's why my colleague Congressman Higgins and I have introduced score before the floor bill to make sure members of Congress and the people know the full impact of the bills that pass the House."

Ro Khanna was the first member of Congress to endorse Randy Bryce for Ryan's seat. He told us that "It's sad that Paul Ryan is undermining fact based and independent institutions like the CBO. He is exploding the deficit with tax cuts for the rich and has made up numbers of GDP growth. Democrats need to counter with our vision. If we provided college for all, Medicare for all, and expanded tax relief for the working class, we would really grow our economy and create jobs. Republicans have reckless policies to reward the investor class and help the stock market. Democrats want to invest in the working class to create jobs and higher wages. That's the fundamental difference."

Goal Thermometer Mark Pocan has been doing multiple healthcare town halls in southern Wisconsin, not just in his own district but in the district next door, Paul Ryan's district, where Ryan is too scared to face his own constituents and explain why he's working so hard to take away healthcare from 22 million Americans. "It is unheard of for the speaker of the house to criticize the House's own non-partisan agency in order to try to align with President Trump's fantasies," Pocan told us. "I miss the Paul Ryan that once stood up to Donald Trump during the campaign. Apparently, that Paul Ryan is gone and has been replaced with a low-level staffer of the Trump administration with a keen resemblance to Paul Ryan. For the sake of the nation, we need the old, backbone-fortified one returned soon." Not that Pocan expects that. Last week, at a "Where's Paul Ryan" townhall in Racine, he introduced an enthusiastic crowd to the progressive Democrat on track to replace Ryan in Congress next year, iron worker and union activist Randy Bryce.

Bryce and Pocan have very similar perspectives on Ryan. "I remember," he told us, "a time when Speaker Ryan was hesitant to give Donald Trump his endorsement. Just over one month ago Paul Ryan thanked everyone who attended the Wisconsin Republican State Convention for electing Trump. Times have changed indeed. Although they are handcuffed together-- luckily they are too inept to figure out how to work together. Refusing to have a public town hall for almost two years while drinking nothing but D.C. swamp water just might do that to a person. He’s now even calling CBO scores 'fake news.' It’s time to let Paul Ryan return to his construction company roots and finally do something to try to contribute to our society, instead of take things away from and ignore the hard working people of Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district."

UPDATE From Alan Grayson

This morning Alan shared a depressing insight into CBO: "What passes for policy analysis in Congress has always been rigged in favor of magnifying costs and ignoring benefits. When the EPA proposes a regulation, it enquires into both what it will costs and how many lives it will save. In Congress, it’s just dollars, dollars and dollars. Now, when the CBO has taken a tiny, baby step toward measuring the real-world consequences of proposed legislation by estimating how many Americans will lose insurance under Trumpcare, it gets threatened with extinction. In a better world, the CBO, like the EPA, would be telling us how many Americans Trumpcare would kill."

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Republican Party's Unspeakable Pig-Sty Of Terrible Ideas


John Calhoun came from a southern colonial family that opposed the federal constitution. He was elected to Congress from South Carolina in 1810 and immediately joined the ranks of the most hawkish, pro-war elements and he was instrumental in dragging the U.S. into the War of 1812. He was named Secretary of War-- the 5th choice-- by James Monroe in 1817. In 1824 he ran for president but found no support but was chosen vice president to John Quincy Adams by the Electoral College. in 1828 he betrayed Adams and ran as vice president on Andrew Jackson' ticket, which won.

What Calhoun is most famous for is his nullification doctrine, which he created as a way of countering what he considered central government tyranny. He saw himself a great defender of minority rights-- minorities being the wealthy white slave-owners. His doctrine, of course, was the philosophical undermining of secession. When he talked about using even the most extreme measures to protect "liberty and sovereignty," he was only talking about the liberty and sovereignty of the very wealthy. in 1832 Jackson sent naval warships to Charleston over nullification and threatened to hang Calhoun, who resigned as vice president as was selected by the South Carolina legislature to be a senator. He quit the Senate in 1843 to run for president in 1844 but found no support and quit the race before started. He was selected by the state legislature as senator again and served in that position until he died in 1850, basically Congress' most outspoken advocate of slavery and of secession over slavery.

This week, in his fascinating Guardian review of Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, George Monbiot brings Calhoun's villainy to the fore again. He writes about how MacLean accidentally stumbled upon the literary legacy of obscure right-wing nut, James McGill Buchanan-- largely a creation of the Koch brothers-- soon after he died. She discovered that Buchanan and the Kochs had been working on a secret plan for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich. That plan now dominates the Republican Party and is reshaping politics.
Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.

James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

Any clash between “freedom” (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defence of freedom.

His prescription was a “constitutional revolution”: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he developed a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like, and a strategy for implementing it.

He explained how attempts to desegregate schooling in the American south could be frustrated by setting up a network of state-sponsored private schools. It was he who first proposed privatising universities, and imposing full tuition fees on students: his original purpose was to crush student activism. He urged privatisation of social security and many other functions of the state. He sought to break the links between people and government, and demolish trust in public institutions. He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy.

In 1980, he was able to put the programme into action. He was invited to Chile, where he helped the Pinochet dictatorship write a new constitution, which, partly through the clever devices Buchanan proposed, has proved impossible to reverse entirely. Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982.

None of this troubled the Swedish Academy, which through his devotee at Stockholm University Assar Lindbeck in 1986 awarded James Buchanan the Nobel memorial prize for economics. It is one of several decisions that have turned this prize toxic.

But his power really began to be felt when Koch, currently the seventh richest man in the US, decided that Buchanan held the key to the transformation he sought. Koch saw even such ideologues as Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan as “sellouts,” as they sought to improve the efficiency of government rather than destroy it altogether. But Buchanan took it all the way.

MacLean says that Charles Koch poured millions into Buchanan’s work at George Mason University, whose law and economics departments look as much like corporate-funded thinktanks as they do academic faculties. He employed the economist to select the revolutionary “cadre” that would implement his programme (Murray Rothbard, at the Cato Institute that Koch founded, had urged the billionaire to study Lenin’s techniques and apply them to the libertarian cause). Between them, they began to develop a programme for changing the rules.

The papers Nancy MacLean discovered show that Buchanan saw stealth as crucial. He told his collaborators that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential.” Instead of revealing their ultimate destination, they would proceed by incremental steps. For example, in seeking to destroy the social security system, they would claim to be saving it, arguing that it would fail without a series of radical “reforms.” (The same argument is used by those attacking the NHS). Gradually they would build a “counter-intelligentsia,” allied to a “vast network of political power” that would become the new establishment.

Through the network of thinktanks that Koch and other billionaires have sponsored, through their transformation of the Republican party, and the hundreds of millions they have poured into state congressional and judicial races, through the mass colonisation of Trump’s administration by members of this network and lethally effective campaigns against everything from public health to action on climate change, it would be fair to say that Buchanan’s vision is maturing in the US.

...In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.

Buchanan’s programme is a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it. But at least, thanks to MacLean’s discoveries, we can now apprehend the agenda. One of the first rules of politics is, know your enemy. We’re getting there.

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