CFM Federal Affairs

Walden’s Unexpected Retirement Announcement to Spur Candidate Rush

Congressman Greg Walden, the only Republican in the Oregon congressional delegation, stunned political observers by announcing today he won’t seek re-election in 2020. Walden is the 15th House GOP member to announce retirement. His announcement is expected to touch off a frenzy in both the Republican and Democratic parties to find candidates to run for a rare open seat in Congress from Oregon.

Congressman Greg Walden, the only Republican in the Oregon congressional delegation, stunned political observers by announcing today he won’t seek re-election in 2020. Walden is the 15th House GOP member to announce retirement. His announcement is expected to touch off a frenzy in both the Republican and Democratic parties to find candidates to run for a rare open seat in Congress from Oregon.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden announced he won’t seek re-election, becoming the 15th House Republican to retire before next year’s presidential election, which is expected to attract one of the largest voter turnouts in decades.

Walden, 62, was elected in 1998 to represent Oregon’s sprawling Second Congressional District. He predicted he could win re-election in 2020 and be part of a Republican resurgence to reclaim control of the House, returning him to the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. However, he said it is time for him to end the “public service chapter of my life” and “pursue new challenges and opportunities.” His re-election margin of victory in 2018 was the lowest since he ran for Congress.

Walden didn’t indicate what he would do next. In 2007, he sold Columbia Gorge Broadcasting, which operates five radio stations in Eastern Oregon, to avoid conflicts of interest in his service on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission. Walden chaired the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which oversees the FCC.

Oregon’s Second Congressional District includes more than 69,000 square miles, touches the borders of Washington, Idaho and California and is the second largest congressional district in the nation that doesn’t include an entire state.

Oregon’s Second Congressional District includes more than 69,000 square miles, touches the borders of Washington, Idaho and California and is the second largest congressional district in the nation that doesn’t include an entire state.

Walden’s father, Paul Walden, served three terms in the Oregon House. Walden was elected to the Oregon House in 1988 and later served in the Oregon Senate before running for an open congressional seat.

Walden enjoys a reputation as a team player and a workhorse. Former US House Speaker John Boehner chose Walden to chair the House Majority Transition Committee and as chairman of the House Republican Leadership. He temporarily gave up his valuable Energy and Commerce Committee seat for one term to accommodate another member who switched parties. He later became the Chairman of the House Republican campaign arm where he helped usher in the largest Republican majority since the 1920s.

Earlier in his political career, Walden appeared destined to run for governor in 1994. He put aside that ambition when he and his wife discovered the child they were expecting had a congenital heart defect. The boy died shortly after birth.

The Second Congressional District has traditionally leaned Republican. The last Democrat to hold the seat was Al Ullman, who represented the district from 1957 to 1981 and was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee when he was defeated for re-election in 1980 by Denny Smith. Walden came to Washington, DC to serve as Smith’s press secretary and later as chief of staff.

The unexpected announcement by Walden, the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, is likely to trigger a lot of political maneuvering by both Republican and Democratic would-be candidates. The district’s makeup has changed with population growth in Bend and Southern Oregon. That makeup is likely to change even more after redistricting, with the potential that Oregon could pick up a sixth House seat.

Drug Pricing Bill Advances Despite Impeachment Drama

As she oversees an unfolding presidential impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also is shepherding legislation to lower drug prices covered by Medicare. Her bill could receive a House floor vote as early as next week. (Photo Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

As she oversees an unfolding presidential impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also is shepherding legislation to lower drug prices covered by Medicare. Her bill could receive a House floor vote as early as next week. (Photo Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The ongoing impeachment inquiry, bipartisan reaction to President Trump’s abandonment of Kurds in Syria and sighs in response to daily tweets have sucked up most of the political oxygen in the Capitol. The signal exception is legislation to deal with drug prices.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s signature bill could reach the House floor as early as next week if Democrats can resolve their internal disagreements, including how much leeway to give Medicare to negotiate drug prices. The version approved this week by the Ways and Means Committee gives Medicare narrow authority to bargain for lower prices on a limited number of high-cost medications. Democratic progressives wanted Medicare to have much broader negotiating authority. Drug makers would face penalties if they refused to negotiate prices.

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Republicans have opposed the bill as it has moved through three separate House committees. They claim it is partisan and was written in secret. GOP lawmakers point to a Congressional Budget Office report warning the legislation could reduce the number of new drugs that come to market in the next decade as a result of price negotiations. The CBO analysis also shows Pelosi’s bill could save Medicare $345 billion over 10 years in prescription drug payments. 

House Democratic divisions could weaken Pelosi’s hand in dealing with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has said the legislation won’t receive a floor vote. Pelosi wants to leverage an overwhelming House majority on the popular legislation to force McConnell to back down.

There is a bipartisan alternative in the Senate, cosponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. It would establish an out-of-pocket maximum for Medicare beneficiaries and cap drug price increases to the rate of inflation, but it wouldn’t allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. The major pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA opposes both the Pelosi and Senate bills. 

Pelosi believes a strong showing in the House could persuade Trump to support the legislation, which would be in line with his campaign and subsequent political pledges. The Washington Post reports negotiations between Pelosi and the White House have continued despite the “impeachment drama.” Even if Trump and McConnell continue to balk, Pelosi will have a talking point to counter the charge that Democrats are only interested in impeaching the President.

Ordinarily, a major bill like this would attract media coverage and voter attention. But these aren’t ordinary times in the nation’s capital. Despite most activity occurring behind closed doors, news of the House impeachment inquiry dominates the daily news cycle. Not far behind is the continuing congressional lamentation about Trump’s sudden Syrian departure that left Kurds, a reliable Middle East ally, at the mercy of Turkey, Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia.

And then there are daily tweets and press opportunities by Trump that stir the pot, such as his comment on Tuesday that the impeachment inquiry is the equivalent of a “lynching.” Trump also called Democrats “vicious” and complained congressional Republicans weren’t fighting hard enough to defend him.

In many ways, the internal division on drug pricing in the House reflects the struggle between Democratic progressives and moderates on the presidential campaign trail. The challenge for Pelosi is to move bill that can be touted as bold without scaring off moderates.

The Battle to Combat Recession Slowly Begins to Take Shape

Economists agree a recession is perhaps only months away. There is less agreement and discussion on how to combat the recession when it occurs. One think tank argues the cure is growing aggregate demand by addressing income inequality. [Illustration Credit: Ji Sub Jeong/Huffpost]

Economists agree a recession is perhaps only months away. There is less agreement and discussion on how to combat the recession when it occurs. One think tank argues the cure is growing aggregate demand by addressing income inequality. [Illustration Credit: Ji Sub Jeong/Huffpost]

The United States is enjoying its longest sustained economic expansion since World War II, but there are signs a recession could occur in the next 12 to 18 months. An emerging question is what weapons US policymakers will have at their disposal to combat an economic downturn.

Historically, the tools to dig out of recession have included higher spending, lower interest rates and tax cuts. However, those tools have been compromised and don’t have much headroom. Federal budget deficits are already at economic stimulus levels, interest rates remain low and taxes have been cut.

Many economists believe trade wars can tip US and global economies into recession and possibly make a recession deeper and longer. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 is credited with adding to the economic strain of the Great Depression by constricting international trade, lowering the gross domestic product and forcing job layoffs. The escalating US-China trade war has moved from a negotiating tactic to a policy preference by the Trump administration, with profound impacts on manufacturing, agriculture and other business sectors in a far more globalized economy than the 1930s. 

The Republican tax cut in 2017, which largely benefitted corporations and wealthier taxpayers, has failed to generate a sustained stimulus as new business investment has stalled, in part because of uncertainty about disruptions in international trade and global supply chains. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have agreed to a budget package extending past the 2020 election that will raise the deficit and national debt even more.

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President Trump has applied continuous pressure on the Federal Reserve Bank to cut interest rates faster and deeper. Critics charge Trump wants to extend the current economic recovery past the 2020 election, even if it risks longer-term economic problems.

One tried-and-true idea to stimulate the economy that rarely gets mentioned is an infrastructure investment package. There has been big talk from the White House to Capitol Hill about investments ranging from $1 to $2 trillion. However, talk breaks down when it comes to paying for such investments in roads, bridges, water systems, public transit and expanded broadband.

Political dialogue about the economy has become as polarized as other hot-button issues such as immigration, health care and gun legislation. As the threat of recession rises, more politicos, especially those appearing on the 2020 election ballot, will have heightened interest in reversing a downturn. That may account for the relatively sparse public discussion of fighting a recession when one next occurs. 

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit think tank that promotes economic policies benefitting low- and middle-income workers, offers some perspective on how to approach the next recession. In a report issued in April, EPI argues for “an effective fiscal boost to aggregate demand growth,” adding, “Policies should be constructed not only to be effective economically, but also to be effective politically, in order to ensure broad and engaged popular support.”

The EPI report says, “A key lesson from the Great Recession is that fiscal policy is the most effective tool for aiding recovery. Monetary policy can lay the groundwork for fiscal policy, but really cannot be relied on to play more than a supporting role for fighting recessions.” Notwithstanding record deficits and spiraling national debt, EPI believes the United States has the “fiscal space” for a substantial stimulus package.

According to EPI, the United States is ill-prepared for a looming recession because it has failed to address income inequality during the historically long economic expansion.  Worsening inequality, it claims, has put a “drag on aggregate demand growth.” Spurring demand, EPI says, is what will get the country out of recession.

A fiscal stimulus in the form of an infrastructure investment or tax cut that seeks to grow demand by shrinking income inequality is likely to be viewed quite differently by Republicans who control the Senate and White House and Democrats who control the House and are running for President. Expect sparks to fly as political campaigns get into full gear this fall.

If predictions hold true and the 2020 election comes down to a handful of swing states, as it did in 2016, the debate over a fiscal stimulus, which EPI favors, or monetary stimulus, which Trump prefers, could be a key factor in who working-class voters support.

The US-China trade war is surfacing as a political talking point on the economy, as Democrats point out the toll tariffs are taking on American farmers, businesses and consumers. However, most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates don’t have a solid trade policy alternative, which makes a recession-fighting fiscal stimulus a more inviting option, especially on the campaign trail.

TPP Offered Positive Alternative to US-China Trade War

There is no obvious end in sight to the escalating US-China trade war that has business owners, farmers, consumers and economists worried. It makes you wonder whether a trade war would have been necessary if the United States had remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and gained economic leverage in the Asia Pacific.

There is no obvious end in sight to the escalating US-China trade war that has business owners, farmers, consumers and economists worried. It makes you wonder whether a trade war would have been necessary if the United States had remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and gained economic leverage in the Asia Pacific.

The clatter surrounding the US-China trade war has further diminished the memory of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was negotiated by President Obama and subsequently ditched by President Trump. If implemented as intended, TPP would have set the rules for 40 percent of the world’s trade. It may have offered an alternative to a trade war.

What has gone largely unnoticed, at least in the United States, is that the 11 other nations in the partnership kept talking and formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership  (CPTPP or TPP-11). The new agreement has been ratified by a majority of signatory countries and went into effect December 30, 2018.

The terms in TPP-11 are largely the same as the original TPP, with notable exceptions.

The CPTPP omits key provisions sought by US trade negotiators, such as longer copyright terms, automatic patent extensions and unique protections for new technologies, including biologics.

The basic agreement eliminates or reduces tariffs, liberalizes cross-border service restrictions, opens markets to foreign investment, establishes e-commerce guidelines, makes it easier for small business to engage in trade and strengthens intellectual property protection and enforcement. TPP-11 also contains labor and environmental standards, transparency rules and restrictions on monopolies and state-owned enterprises. China was excluded from conversations leading to the TPP and is not one of the TPP-11 members.

The TPP’s origins date back to President George W. Bush who called for trade negotiations with the leading Pacific Rim economies. Obama took up the TPP as part of his pivot to the Asia Pacific – and as a counter-balance to China’s growing economic dominance and influence. Trump withdrew from TPP to keep faith with a campaign promise and to pursue bilateral trade negotiations chiefly aimed at reducing trade deficits. There are reports a US-Japanese bilateral agreement is near final agreement. The United States, Canada and Mexico have negotiated an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it remains stalled in Congress.

Since withdrawing from the TPP, Trump has imposed rounds of tariffs to force China to modify its intellectual property rule, forced technology transfer policies and state-owned business advantages. US businesses are wary of a continuing trade war because of disruptions to supply chains that are deeply embedded in China. Meanwhile, hard-earned export markets for products such as soybeans and lobsters have shrunk as the Chinese have turned to Russian farmers and Canadian lobstermen.

At times, it seems as if the United States lacks real leverage to win Chinese concessions. Experts who track China say US views that its Asian competitor is merely a low-cost outpost for outsourcing overlook growing Chinese competence for turning innovation into products. An example is an investment by Johnson & Johnson, which invested $180 million in a factory and a science hub for “problem-solving scientists” in the bio-pharmaceutical sector.

Chinese leaders have loftier ambitions. They want to be innovators, not just implementers. They have set their sights on artificial intelligence as the next major disruption of technology and manufacturing. China is installing electric charging stations through its vast territory because it wants to be the world’s leading producer of electric vehicles. For years, China has sent many of its best minds to study at American universities. Now, it is actively recruiting for the return of many of those talented minds to support its innovation ambitions.

Along with its innovation agenda, China is investing heavily in infrastructure, with a massive Belt and Road Initiative, which involves investments in 152 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Africa. Re-establishment of the Silk Road is a real-life metaphor for recreating historical land and maritime links that in the future will connect China’s industry to most of the rest of the world – and potentially isolate the United States. The Trump administration hasn’t seriously proposed a major infrastructure investment package and instead is fixated on building a border wall with Mexico, the third largest US trading partner behind China and Canada.

Which brings the conversation back to TPP or, more precisely, TPP-11. With the benefit of hindsight, a contemporary trade alliance with major Pacific Rim economies seems like a pretty good insurance policy to spreading Chinese influence and continuing intransigence on what America views as fair trade. 

The TPP-11 carefully dismissed US planks, referring to their deletions as “suspensions,” leaving an opening for the United States to rejoin the partnership. Trump briefly entertained rejoining, but he changed his mind. Then he launched his tariffs, trade wars and tirades against windmills.

As the US-China trade war shows no quick or obvious exit route, it is worth pondering whether another approach might have achieved better results. Economists warn the continuing trade war is slowing global economic activity, perhaps by as much as $585 billion by next year. The trade war’s unintended consequences include reducing US corporate investment, disrupting the stock market and threatening a recession. Economic studies predicted TPP would have boosted the US economy, adding $130 billion to US gross domestic product by 2030.

Opposition in both political parties led to the scuttling of TPP, largely over predicted losses in US manufacturing jobs. The studies indicated those job losses would have been offset by gains in the agricultural and service sectors. 

The future of manufacturing jobs is itself problematic, especially with advances in robotics and AI. One commentator said globalization has already “decapitalized” much US manufacturing, which he says is unlikely ever to return. 

US manufacturing employment began rebounding in the recovery following the Great Recession and continued in the first 28 months of Trump’s presidency (525,000 under Obama, 471,000 under Trump). However, manufacturing job growth has dropped off markedly in 2019. The aggregate number of hours worked in in US manufacturing has backed off to what it was last year. Forward-looking indexes predict a sharp retraction in manufacturing, in part due to the US-China trade war and rising tariffs. Manufacturing wage growth has lagged overall wage increases.

A fair assessment is that the United States is not experiencing a manufacturing renaissance under current trade and tax policies – and without the TPP.

As reported by the Council on Foreign Relations, “[TPP] would have expanded US trade and investment abroad, spurred economic growth, lowered consumer prices and created new jobs, while also advancing U.S. strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.” That’s a much rosier outlook than what’s on the horizon with continuing US-China trade war.

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Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Stepchild of Health Care Now Getting Overdue Attention

People are living longer and the population of older adults is growing, but long-term care remains a stepchild in debates over health care. That is beginning to change as presidential candidates offer options for expanding long-term benefits for older adults and people with disabilities. With only a small percentage of older adults who have private long-term care insurance, the challenge and costs of expanded benefits are daunting.

People are living longer and the population of older adults is growing, but long-term care remains a stepchild in debates over health care. That is beginning to change as presidential candidates offer options for expanding long-term benefits for older adults and people with disabilities. With only a small percentage of older adults who have private long-term care insurance, the challenge and costs of expanded benefits are daunting.

Long-term care has been the missing link in health care reform debates, but that is changing as 2020 Democratic presidential candidates offer options for addressing the arguably biggest gap in the US health care system.

The Medicare-for-All plan introduced by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and supported by several Democratic presidential candidates adds long-term care benefits to Medicare. Independent estimates place the cost for expanded benefits at $25 trillion over 10 years.

A House version of Medicare-for-All, cosponsored by Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, which emphasizes policies that allow older adults to remain in their homes. "Instead of saying institutional care is the default, we say you should be able to get care at home, in your community," Jayapal says.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recently unveiled a proposal to expand eligibility for long-term care services for older adults and disabled persons under Medicaid. Roughly 20 percent of Medicaid spending goes toward long-term care. About 65 percent of nursing home residents are supported primarily by Medicaid.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar has a “Plan for Seniors” that seeks to expand long-term care facilities, add hearing, vision and dental care to Medicare and support training for long-term caregivers. Klobuchar wants to bolster Social Security by lifting the payroll tax from the current $133,000 income cutoff to wages up to $250,000. 

Political dialogue about long-term care has been sparked by data showing projected growth in the number of older adults in the US population. By 2035, there are expected to be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million people under the age of 18. As few as 8 million Americans have some form of private long-term care insurance. There also has been a strong push by disabled Americans to strengthen long-term care.

Older Americans make up one of the most consistent voting blocs and they tend to be more conservative than younger voters. Democrats sniff an opportunity to eat into a bedrock conservative cohort by advancing long-term care initiatives.

AGE+,  a new nonprofit, has formed to address long-term care issues holistically in Oregon with an emphasis on aging in place and addressing equity for underserved older adults in rural areas and minority communities.

AGE+, a new nonprofit, has formed to address long-term care issues holistically in Oregon with an emphasis on aging in place and addressing equity for underserved older adults in rural areas and minority communities.

Providing long-term care benefits under Medicare or Medicaid will be expensive. The dimensions of the problem go beyond money. There aren’t enough long-term care beds available, there are too few single-story homes where disabled and older adults could age in place and there is already a shortage of trained caregivers. Add to that isolation that can occur, especially in rural areas, and inequities in available long-term care options. Low pay is a barrier to recruiting more caregivers.

Gerontology researched Marc Cohen describes long-term care as the stepchild in the broader health care reform discussion. Nicole Jorwic, policy director for The Arc that serves people with disabilities, says, “If you don't include long-term supports and services, it cannot be considered a bill that is for all people because it leaves out huge portions of the population, including people with disabilities and aging Americans."

 


A Way to Meet the Candidates Face-to-Face in Your Kitchen

The New York Times published an interactive “Meet the Candidates” special report in which 21 Democratic presidential candidates each answered 18 policy and personal questions in videotaped profiles that are easy to access and easy to listen to.

The New York Times published an interactive “Meet the Candidates” special report in which 21 Democratic presidential candidates each answered 18 policy and personal questions in videotaped profiles that are easy to access and easy to listen to.

With more than 20 Democratic presidential contenders, it’s hard to keep track of what they stand for, what they champion – or even who they are. The New York Times has, as Elizabeth Warren would say, a plan for that. 

In a special report called “Meet the Candidates,” the Times sat down with 21 of the presidential hopefuls in front of a camera and recorded their answers to 18 questions. The questions range from policy issues to personal preferences, including who candidates view as their personal heroes and their go-to comfort foods on the campaign trail. The interviews took place from early March to June.

The result is a fresh and engaging way to scope out the candidates, with one major exception. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, declined to participate.

The interactive report is another excellent example of reimagining newspapers in the digital era by marrying video and digital technology with traditional newspaper coverage.

The candidates were asked their views about guns, health care, climate change, foreign policy, immigration, death penalty, breaking up big technology firms and expanding the US Supreme Court.

Personal questions ranged from asking when a candidate’s family migrated to the United States, how much sleep they get, the last time they were embarrassed and how they relax. There also was a closing question that asked, “Does anyone deserve to have $1 billion?”

The report’s intent is to give viewers a face-to-face opportunity to listen to each candidate explain their views in their own words without filters or disruptions.

You can click on one or all 21 candidate profiles at your pleasure. Each profile contains the 18 questions and a candidate’s answer to each question in separate short videos. There also is brief summary of the views expressed. If you like what you hear, there is a “share” button.

Here are excerpts from Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s video profile:

Washington Governor Jay Inslee was one of 21 Democratic presidential contenders to sit for videotaped interviews by The New York Times for its innovative “Meet the Candidates” special report in which candidates could tell their story and state their views in their own unfiltered words.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee was one of 21 Democratic presidential contenders to sit for videotaped interviews by The New York Times for its innovative “Meet the Candidates” special report in which candidates could tell their story and state their views in their own unfiltered words.

  • Inslee touts his work as governor on fighting climate change and his plan to shift America to a clean energy economy, creating 8 million jobs.

  • Inslee calls for universal health care coverage and cites his leadership to create a public option for health insurance in Washington.

  • Inslee believes in the private right to own handguns, questions whether the current Israeli government is meeting international human rights standards and considers his wife, mother and father as his heroes.

  • Inslee supports legal immigration and asylum seekers and wants to protect so-called “Dreamers.”

  • His last embarrassment, Inslee says, was in high school when he missed a game-winning shot.

  • Inslee opposes the death penalty and favors criminal justice reform to address racial disparity.

  • Inslee favors enforcing antitrust laws when it comes to Facebook, Amazon and Google.

  • Inslee traces his family lineage to England and Wales. He didn’t provide answers for his go-to comfort food or how much sleep he gets on average.

  • Regarding adding more justices to the US Supreme Court, Inslee says he is open to any idea to protect a woman’s right to choose.

  • Inslee believes President Trump has committed crimes in office and the House is edging toward an impeachment inquiry.

In describing the project, the Times said Elizabeth Warren was the first candidate to sit for an interview and was invited back because more questions were added after her interview. It noted the interviews occurred at different stages of the release of Mueller special investigation report, which influenced how candidates answered the question about Trump. Most interviews occurred in New York, but some candidates sat for interviews in Washington, DC, Texas and Iowa.

Despite Urgent Warnings, Election Security Bills Appear Doomed

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller warned Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections and the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating Russians may have touched election systems in all 50 states. Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a vote on election security legislation that would set federal standards for electronic voting machines, calling it too partisan.

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller warned Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections and the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating Russians may have touched election systems in all 50 states. Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a vote on election security legislation that would set federal standards for electronic voting machines, calling it too partisan.

The former special prosecutor testified Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections. The House has passed bills addressing election security, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked them, claiming they are “so partisan.” What’s going on?

Election security, especially in the face of a new Senate committee report indicating Russian cyber-actors may have tried or actually penetrated election operations in all 50 states, seems like an odd issue to fall prey to partisanship. It’s even more odd when you look at what the latest House election security bill seeks to do. 

For federal elections, the House measure requires paper ballots, at least as a back-up, and prohibits voting systems connected to the internet. The legislation also authorizes $775 million in grants to help states secure their own voting systems with updated technology and cybersecurity safeguards and tightens standards for private companies providing election infrastructure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (SAFE Act) “closes dangerous gaps in our election systems and brings our security into the 21st century.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer added, “Nothing is more important to our democracy than ensuring every American can safely cast a ballot and have that vote counted accurately.” As partisan rhetoric goes, that’s pretty much apple pie.

McConnell wasn’t persuaded.

Senator Ron Wyden, citing Oregon’s experience with paper mail-in ballots, has pushed hard for a return to paper ballots, which are hard to hack. He has urged McConnell to protect democracy, not continue to expose it to foreign influences. He didn’t change McConnell’s mind, either.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on election security legislation, calling it “partisan.” His critics believe he has other reasons. {Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters}

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on election security legislation, calling it “partisan.” His critics believe he has other reasons. {Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters}

The Senate Intelligence Committee released an election security report last week that calls for greater collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and state election officials. The report cites improvements in collaboration since the 2016 election, but identifies persistent gaps and vulnerabilities, as well as exposure from continuously advancing cyber-hacking techniques. 

Republicans in the House objected to the SAFE Act, branding it as a federal election mandate. McConnell hasn’t spelled out his objections beyond calling the House Democratic legislation as partisan because of the party-line vote that approved it.

His unwillingness to bring election security legislation to the Senate floor has earned him the Twitter tag of “Moscow Mitch” and enraged critics who say he fears fair elections would help Democrats.

A more plausible reason for McConnell’s disinterest stems from his political ties to electronic voting machine vendors. In 2018, there were 14 states that used electronic voting systems with no paper trail. Currently, there are no federally mandated security standards for electronic voting systems. 

Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he hopes the panel’s report “will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.” 

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford has proposed election security legislation, which he says stops short of “federalizing” elections and mandating federal certification of election machines. “There's no reason to play ‘mother may I’ with someone in Washington, DC, on how it works,” Lankford said in a Senate floor speech. “States need to run their elections. But the federal government should always be there to assist states, to say, ‘If you have a question, if you want a second opinion, we can offer that.’”

If McConnell brought Lankford’s bill to the Senate floor, it would likely pass the GOP-controlled Senate on a mostly party-line vote, demonstrating that, contrary to warnings and urgent pleas for action, election security has taken its place in the line of bills doomed to go nowhere.

Momentous Week in Washington Touches on Core National Values

The Supreme Court ruled on gerrymandering and the Census citizenship question, Congress debated emergency border funding and set a date for testimony by former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, Trump flew to Japan for a G20 summit and Democratic presidential candidates debated in Miami. It was a pretty momentous week.

The Supreme Court ruled on gerrymandering and the Census citizenship question, Congress debated emergency border funding and set a date for testimony by former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, Trump flew to Japan for a G20 summit and Democratic presidential candidates debated in Miami. It was a pretty momentous week.

This has proven to be a momentous week in Washington, DC that touched on the nation’s core institutions and values and how they interrelate.

The Supreme Court, in separate 5-4 rulings, left untouched partisan-tinged congressional district gerrymandering and blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to place on a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.

The high court’s majority said the US Constitution doesn’t bar politically influenced gerrymandering or allocate authority to the court to police it. In an impassioned dissent, the minority said the ruling is setback for democratic values.

Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Trump administration failed to make a persuasive argument that the citizenship question is needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. "If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case," Roberts wrote. The Census Bureau has said it wants to start printing questionnaires next Monday. Calling the ruling “ridiculous,” Trump indicated he would try to delay the Census “for as long as it takes.”

Meanwhile, Congress struggled to reach bipartisan agreement on an emergency funding measure to address border migration issues before the July 4 recess. The Democratically controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate passed separate versions this week. Among the differences between the two bills is whether there will be specific directions on how the $4.5 billion can be spent. President Trump has threatened to veto the House version. 

The picture of the drowned bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande shocked the nation and accentuated calls for actions to address the humanitarian crisis on the border. (Photo Credit: Julia Le Duc/AP)

The picture of the drowned bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande shocked the nation and accentuated calls for actions to address the humanitarian crisis on the border. (Photo Credit: Julia Le Duc/AP)

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge there is a humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, punctuated by the widely circulated photograph of a Salvadoran father and his young daughter clutching his neck who drowned in the Rio Grande trying to enter the United States without going through a port of entry.

The uproar caused by the photo and continuing coverage of child migrant holding facilities prompted John Sanders, acting head of US Customs and Border Patrol, to resign. Tellingly, he submitted his resignation to the acting head of Homeland Security.

As Trump flew to Japan for a G20 meeting on Wednesday, Democratic candidates sparred in Miami in the first of two debates in the 2020 presidential election. They talked about health care reform, immigration policy, climate change and economic policy. Trump, who watched the first night’s debate on Air Force One, called it boring as the first 10 candidates staked out largely progressive agendas that included moving away from private health insurance and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.

The second set of hopefuls, which includes frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, will debate Thursday night.

In Japan, Trump is expected to meet on the sidelines with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. His conversation with Xi will likely center on an escalating trade war that is taking its toll on both countries’ bottom lines. Trump snarled at reporters who asked what he will discuss with Putin, telling them it was “none of your business.” Heightened tensions in Iran and Russian military involvement in Venezuela are two probable topics.

Ahead of the summit, Trump lashed out at India, Japan and Germany over trade policy and “security freeloaders.” Trump is expected once again to object to any joint statement at the summit that references the Paris Climate Accord, which will further strain US-French relations. 

Congressional Democrats announced former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will testify publicly July 17 before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. That suggests the two hearings will sequentially deal with Trump’s potential obstruction of justice and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election..

Questioning of Mueller is virtually certain to zero in on testimony provided to his investigation under oath by White House officials who have been barred from testifying in Congress by Trump’s attorneys. The interrogation could prove pivotal to a decision by House Democratic leaders to draw up articles of impeachment.

Another fight is brewing over foreign policy. Democrats insist Trump needs a congressional declaration of war before launching any military action in Iran. Trump, supported by Senate GOP leaders, says he doesn’t.

A bipartisan resolution calling on the Trump administration to suspend an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia won’t stop the deal, according to Trump officials.

Under the radar, former Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been testifying in private to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A transcript of his testimony released this week included Tillerson’s claim that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was in contact with world leaders without coordination with the State Department, often leaving him out of the loop on emerging policies. 

“Tillerson also described the challenge of briefing a president who does not read briefing papers and often got distracted by peripheral topics, noting he had to keep his message short and focus on a single topic,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

 

 

Oregonians to Play Key Role in Congressional USMCA Review

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici will play pivotal roles on drug pricing and environmental issues as part of the House review of the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement negotiated by the Trump administration.

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici will play pivotal roles on drug pricing and environmental issues as part of the House review of the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement negotiated by the Trump administration.

Next to immigration, US trade policy is one of the top priorities of President Trump. Winning congressional approval of the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA), which his administration negotiated, is a key plank of Trump’s 2020 presidential election agenda.

House Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are the major obstacle for Trump’s ambition. Pelosi took steps this week to begin negotiations with Trump’s trade advisers and she put two members of the Oregon congressional delegation in pivotal leadership positions. She also signaled support for a labor enforcement proposal championed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer will co-chair a team focused on drug pricing, while Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici will co-chair the team examining environmental issues.

Pelosi hasn’t committed to a House floor vote on the USMCA until changes are made, which would require further negotiations with Mexico and Canada. Without House Democratic votes, the trade deal cannot move. Trump has indicated he would like USMCA approved before Congress adjourns for its August recess. Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass, expressed hope that negotiations with House work groups could wrap up in as little as 30 days. 

The delicate negotiations come in the shadow of Trump’s threats to impose escalating tariffs on all Mexican exports to the United States if the country doesn’t do more to stem the flow of migrants from Central America. Trump pulled back from imposing the tariffs after what appears to be a provisional deal was struck with Mexican leaders. He also has pulled back tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Stalemated negotiations and a continuing trade war with China also muddy the congressional water for USMCA. Even in its current form, the USMCA isn’t a slam dunk to pass the legislatures in Mexico and Canada.

The USMCA is effectively an update of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), including provisions relating to the digital economy that didn’t exist a quarter century ago. During his presidential campaign and early in his term, Trump threatened to talk away from NAFTA. However, strong business opposition dissuaded that drastic move, which would have disrupted supply chains of US manufacturing and imperiled US agricultural markets in Mexico and Canada.

Since the USMCA was unveiled last fall, congressional Democrats and US labor leaders signaled disappointment with enforcement procedures for labor provisions aimed at closing the pay gap between Mexican and US manufacturing workers. Wyden and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown have proposed tougher enforcement provisions. A bipartisan, bicameral delegation of congressional trade staffers returned from a fact-finding mission in Mexico with suggestions for beefing up enforcement. They include new ways to enforce labor provisions auditing 700,000 collective bargaining agreements in Mexico, which could take years to complete.

Provisions related to drugs and environmental issues are other areas that Democrats want to bolster in the USMCA and which Blumenauer and Bonamici will influence.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and business groups representing major US exporters are lobbying for approval now. Influential Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, told Bloomberg News, “I talked to Ambassador Lighthizer and everyone understands the things that need to be fixed. There are a number of us who want to get a trade bill. We need a new NAFTA. People are working toward a good bill.”

 

Congressional Appropriations in Full Swing, Sort Of, As Deadlines Loom

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

As fiscal deadlines loom, the appropriations process is now in full swing – at least in the House of Representatives.

The end of the current fiscal year is rapidly approaching and lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a breakdown in the appropriations process by reaching an agreement on topline spending levels for the next two years and to raise the debt ceiling.  

House appropriators have approved all 12 annual spending bills, with House leaders aiming to pass them out of the full chamber by the end of June. As expected, House spending legislation largely rebukes the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts and instead outlines large spending increases across the federal government. 

To speed up passage, House Democrats were planning to bundle five fiscal 2020 spending bills into a massive package for floor consideration this week. However, that package lost a leg when the Legislative Branch measure was dropped after a disagreement over a provision to raise lawmaker salaries. The House began debate today on the revised four bill package that combines the fiscal 2020 measures for Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and State-Foreign Operations.

The bundling decision underscored a determination by House Democratic leaders to avoid another breakdown in the appropriations process and allow enough time for negotiations with the Senate before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Just as Republicans did last year, the strategy includes combining the two biggest annual spending bills – Defense and Labor-HHS-Education. Congress was able to get those two bills, along with three others, signed into law last year before the start of fiscal 2019. 

But the strategy is hardly a cure-all. A dispute over funding for the border wall last year brought work on other spending bills to a halt and led to the longest partial government shutdown in history. And topline funding levels finalized in the ongoing bipartisan budget negotiations are unlikely to mirror the priorities of House Democrats. 

Without a bicameral budget agreement in place yet, Senate appropriators have yet to mark up any of their spending bills for fiscal 2020. Bipartisan negotiations to set funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 have stalled primarily over disagreement on the level of domestic spending and whether new spending will be offset by new revenues or cuts elsewhere. An agreement to raise spending limits is necessary to avoid severe cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending imposed by a 2011 deficit reduction law.

Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday with the White House in hopes to solidify the party’s spending strategy, but early reports suggest no agreement was reached. Part of that strategy includes deciding whether or not to couple raising the debt limit with must-pass spending legislation. The deadline to lift or suspend the debt limit is fluid, but the Treasury’s borrowing authority can likely last through October before a default.

The bottom line: A breakthrough will need to happen soon to avoid a shutdown or stopgap spending resolution come October. There are just 21 legislative days scheduled before the August recess. After which lawmakers will return to Washington with only 13 scheduled legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

 

 

Northwest Congressional Delegation Employs Twitter, Too

President Donald Trump communicates to his political base via Twitter and so do many Members of Congress, including the Pacific Northwest delegation. Issues they tweet about range from orca protection, affordable housing, drug interdiction, family separation at the border and reproductive rights.

President Donald Trump communicates to his political base via Twitter and so do many Members of Congress, including the Pacific Northwest delegation. Issues they tweet about range from orca protection, affordable housing, drug interdiction, family separation at the border and reproductive rights.

President Trump communicates directly with his base via Twitter. So do Members of Congress. Here is a sampler of recent Pacific Northwest congressional member tweets, reflecting the breadth of issues they track and attempt to impact:

  • Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) tweeted his support for the 21 young people challenging the Trump administration in court to protect the environment in light of climate change. “Anyone who is still a climate denier or thinks there’s no hope in saving our planet should read about the Juliana v. U.S. case,” the Portland Democrat said. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the case this week to decide whether to allow it to go to trial. Two previous court rulings okayed moving ahead.

  • Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (@RepPeterDeFazio), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said investing in the Coast Guard will result in more drug interdiction than spending billions of dollars on a border wall. "An investment in assets for the Coast Guard – both personnel and equipment – would be a heck of a lot better than a static wall that people can go around, under or through," the Oregon Democrat said at a congressional hearing. DeFazio’s comment was posted on Twitter by OPB political writer Jeff Mapes. 

  • Washington Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) tweeted in response to news reports of botched family reunifications art at the US-Mexican border that resulted in long delays and children stuck in vans. “First cages, now vans. This is truly shameful and I will keep fighting to make sure President Trump and his administration are held accountable for this abuse.”

  • Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) tweeted, “It’s time for Congress to pass the bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and the Trump administration to stop ignoring the ethnic cleansing of China’s Muslim community. The US needs to sanction the officials responsible for these heinous abuses.” 

  • Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (@RepBonamici) is using her Twitter feed this week to promote #WorldOceansDay and the need to protect oceanic resources. She is co-chair of the House Oceans Caucus and her congressional district includes the North Oregon Coast. 

  • Washington Congressman Denny Heck (@RepDennyHeck) noted a resolution he introduced to declare June National Orca Protection Month. “There is cause for hope this year,” Heck tweeted. “But hope alone won’t save the Southern Resident killer whales.” 

  • Oregon Congressman Greg Walden (@repgregwalden) marked the celebration of life for Bob Maxwell, 98, a US Army combat solder in World War II who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in France. Maxwell, who lived in Bend, grew up as a Quaker, but declined classification as a conscientious objector when he was drafted in 1941. He participated in the Allied military campaign in North Africa and was part of the invasion force in Salerno, which earned him a Silver Star. Walden tweeted, “He will forever be cherished in the country that he sacrificed so much to protect, and in the hearts of everyone he interacted with, especially the community in central Oregon.” 

  • Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) tweeted, “Today, I became the FIRST South Asian American woman to preside over the US House of Representatives. Beyond proud to serve in the most diverse Congress in our nation’s history and to hold the gavel today.”

  • Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (@cathymcmorris) tweeted, “Socialism and human rights do not co-exist.” Her comment came in a story about Rodgers servings as one of two elected lawmakers representing Congress at the United Nations.

  • Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) tweeted, “Housing is a right, not a privilege. But right now, some families face an impossible choice of paying rent and buying food. The affordable housing crisis in my home state and others demands action to ensure every American has a roof over their head. #OurHomesOurVoices.” His tweet coincided with National Housing Week of Action from May 30-June 5.

  • Washington Senator Maria Cantwell (@SenatorCantwell) used her Twitter feed to announce cosponsoring the Women’s Health Protection Act, which she said, “guarantees a woman’s right to choose nationwide, free from medically-unnecessary restrictions that interfere with a patient’s individual choice or the provider-patient relationship. #StopTheBans

  • Washington Congressman Kim Schrier (@DrKimSchrier) tweeted, “So-called heartbeat bills have no basis in science, and are a cruel attempt to control women’s bodies. I’m proud to stand with @DrLeanaWen and @PPFA to #stopthebans.” Schrier is a pediatrician and was elected to Congress from a suburban Washington House district in 2018.

 

Medicare-for-All Debate Reflects Voter Interest in Health Care

Health care was a major issue in the 2018 midterm elections and promises to be center stage in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, as reflected by growing support for concepts behind Medicare-for-All legislation.

Health care was a major issue in the 2018 midterm elections and promises to be center stage in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, as reflected by growing support for concepts behind Medicare-for-All legislation.

Medicare-for-All has become a campaign battle cry, even though what it actually means is far from clear.

Senator Bernie Sanders made radical health care reform a top-rung political priority in his 2016 presidential bid. Sanders is running for president again and now has a lot of company in calling for a major health care insurance overhaul.

Senator Bernie Sanders made radical health care reform a top-rung political priority in his 2016 presidential bid. Sanders is running for president again and now has a lot of company in calling for a major health care insurance overhaul.

First off, the Medicare-for-All version espoused by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders isn’t actually an extension of Medicare, which now covers 50 million Americans, but would be phased out over four years. His bill contains provisions, such as coverage for long-term care, that aren’t covered now by the landmark health insurance plan created in 1965. Sanders is short on details of how to pay for more robust and costly benefits.

Most advocates of “Medicare-for-All” are expressing support for a single-payer system under which the federal government would assume the role of a giant, publicly funded health insurer. Sanders and others want to see expanded coverage for current Medicare enrollees as well as universal coverage. An enlarged pool of patients under a Medicare-for-All system would give government officials even more leverage to negotiate lower and more consistent pricing for medical services and prescription drugs.

Elimination of all private insurance, including insurance policies provided through employers, has been branded as “socialism” by Medicare-for-All opponents. For context, opponents said the same thing about Medicare.

Some Medicare-for-All proponents would like to see an expansion of Medicare eligibility and benefits, but not necessarily elimination of all private insurance, which provides coverage for 150 million American workers and their families.

Democrats who pushed through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 made a similar political calculation, though they stopped short of including a “public option” that would have provided a government-sponsored health insurance plan. Instead, they opted for expanding Medicaid eligibility on a cost-sharing basis with states.

Some present-day Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who steered the ACA through Congress earlier this decade, still prefer an incremental approach as the logical and politically achievable next step towards universal health insurance. That might involve increased federal funding for Medicaid expansion, restoration of the mandate for everyone to have health insurance coverage or creation of some form of reinsurance pool to smooth out the cost of high-cost patients.

These variations, combined with 23 Democratic presidential candidates running around the country talking about health care while attempting to differentiate themselves from the herd, have created understandable confusion among voters. That confusion is compounded by continuing efforts by the Trump administration to take the ACA (Obamacare) off the books.

What’s clear is that some provisions of the ACA are very popular, notably preventing people with pre-existing conditions, often chronic illnesses or cancer survivors, from being denied affordable health insurance coverage. That has created a conundrum for congressional Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to repeal and replace Obamacare. Republicans express support for retain the pre-existing condition provision, yet they haven’t successfully landed on a larger platform to address health insurance access – and rising health care costs.

Beyond the debate over Medicare-for-All, health care in America is confusing. There are multiple public players (Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Health Care, Indian Health Service, public health clinics, hospitals affiliated with public universities, public mental health clinics and public school clinics) and private players (for-profit corporations, nonprofit organizations, medical practices, medical laboratories, hospitals affiliated with private universities and integrated health care systems). 

The divide between health insurance and health care delivery is a blurred line. Many private health insurance policies come with their own networks that limit choice of medical providers.

Adding to this dizzying picture are soaring drug prices, with their own cast of characters that include pharmaceutical companies, pharmacy benefit managers, self-insured corporations, foreign-based internet retail outlets and prescription drug patent attorneys.

The end result is a health care system that is costly, suffers from a lack of coordination and isn’t equitable. One report concluded, “Disparities in access to services signal the need to expand insurance to cover the uninsured and to ensure that all Americans have an accessible medical home.” 

Oregon has pioneered approaches to health care that respond to broader criticisms of the US system, or lack of a “system.” Under a federal waiver, Oregon has promoted increased in-home care for older adults and physically disabled persons that enables independent living and avoids more expensive institutional care. Oregon was among the first states to expand Medicaid eligibility, as permitted under the ACA, and has steadfastly defended that expansion despite rising costs.

Former Governor John Kitzhaber implemented coordinated care organizations serving low-income Oregonians to “bend the cost curve” through innovation and coordination. Since leaving office, Kitzhaber has pushed for investing to redress “social determinants” of health such as a lack of proper nutrition and early childhood education. Health care systems are striving to integrate physical and behavioral care to improve outcomes.

The Washington Legislature enacted this year a first-in-the-nation state-sponsored long-term care social insurance program. Under the program, Washington residents will pay 58 cents on every $100 of income, with the revenue flowing into a Long-Term Care Trust. Residents who pay into the fund for 10 years (three if a catastrophic disabling event) will be entitled to receive $100 a day up to a lifetime cap of $36,500. The money can be used for in-home care, installation of accessibility ramps, home food deliveries or transportation. The payroll tax is projected to generate $1 billion per year.

For many health care observers, actions such as Oregon’s and Washington’s are akin to bailing water out of a sinking boat. They call for a broader, more holistic approach to reform. That isn’t the same as calling for Medicare-for-All, which remains somewhere on the political spectrum between an aspiration and an abstraction.

What seems inevitable is that Americans have grown restive with gridlock as health care out-of-pocket costs and drug prices continue to rise much faster than inflation or wages. The 2018 mid-term election, which saw Democrats unseat GOP congressional incumbents and capture Republican-dominated seats, could be a bellwether of growing voter interest in tangible action on health care. Most prominent Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have apparently heard that message, which accounts for their support for Medicare-for-All or something like it that is significant and meaningful.

 

 

A Perpetual GOP-Controlled Senate May be in Nation’s Future

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

On OPB’s Livewire radio show over the weekend, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said America’s democracy is threatened by gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money. He left off the growing dissimilarity of makeup of the US Senate to the US population.

Court cases are swirling around seeking to level the playing field on politically motivated gerrymandering, bar voter suppression of communities of color and restrict campaign contributions, or at least bring them fully into the sunshine. 

There is no viable challenge afoot to Senate representation that is becoming more distorted from the one-man, one-vote principle.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie paints a picture of a permanent GOP majority in the US Senate, despite growing Democratically leaning populations on both coasts.

“The Republican coalition of rural whites, exurban whites and anti-tax suburbanites may not be large enough to win the national popular vote in a head-to-head matchup with Democrats,” Bouie writes “But it covers a much larger part of the country’s landmass, giving it a powerful advantage in the Senate.”

When the Constitution was drafted, less populated states feared the dominance of Virginia, the California of its time. Virginia’s population of 747,610 dwarfed Delaware’s 59,094 residents, which led to the Madisoneque compromise giving every state, regardless of its population, two senators.

Fast forward to today and you have California with 40 million residents and Wyoming with fewer than 600,000 each represented by two senators. That’s “a disparity that gives a voter in Wyoming 67 times the voting power of a voter in California,” observes Bouie. 

The disparity is on track to get wider. “By 2040, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, half the population will live in eight states, with eight other states representing the next 20 percent of the population. The remaining 34 states will hold 30 percent of the population. In the Senate, this would give them 68 seats. Overall, half the country’s population would control 84 of the 100 seats in the chamber.”

The upshot, based on current red state/blue state trends, is a perpetual Republican asset, serving a GOP president and thwarting a Democratic president. Mitch McConnell is not an aberration; he is an avatar of the future.

The distortion that perpetuates GOP control also bedevils the Electoral College, which has delivered victory to more than one candidate, including the current incumbent, who lost the majority vote nationwide. This has led to calls for abolition of the Electoral College and electing presidents by majority vote. Not surprisingly, Republicans and red-state leaders have been cool to the idea.

As the 2020 presidential election comes into focus, Democratic strategists have begun to explore ways to offset the growing predominance of Republicans in the Senate. Bouie reports some of the ideas, inspired by David Faris’ “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,”  have a ring of truth as well as novelty.

One idea is to add more states such as DC and Puerto Rico and break up California into six states, which presumably would give Democrats a net of 14 more or less permanently Democratic senators. Of course, Republicans could respond by following suit in GOP-leaning mega-states such as Texas and Florida.

The Roosevelt Institute offers a similar, but distinctly different alternative – add representatives to the Senate from the Atlantic territories, Pacific territories and Native tribes. A mix of nations – Australia, Brazil, France, Finland and Denmark – have set aside seats in their parliaments for indigenous peoples. Again, it would be hard to imagine Republicans and red states falling for this logic and undoing their home-field advantage.

The underlying conclusion Bouie reaches is that even if Democrats somehow manage to unseat President Trump in 2020, retain control of the House, overcome gerrymandering, thwart voter suppression and blunt dark money, Republicans will still be in the captain’s chair in the Senate, obstructing Democratic initiatives and blocking Democratically appointed judges. The story of Merrick Garland will be repeated and become the norm.

With 22 seats to defend, Senate Republicans would seem vulnerable in 2020. However, only two are in Democrat-leaning states. Democrats hold an Alabama Senate seat, which is likely to flip back to form. In other words, unless Democrats win the Senate against the odds, Bouie says everything else they win may be for naught.

 

 

Coffee Mugs Wake up America, Portray Prexy Preferences

Every 2020 presidential candidate, and even a few who aren’t running, have commemorative coffee mugs to make their supporters swoon over a hot mug of java. No one better befits the coffee mug motif than Cup of Joe Biden.

Every 2020 presidential candidate, and even a few who aren’t running, have commemorative coffee mugs to make their supporters swoon over a hot mug of java. No one better befits the coffee mug motif than Cup of Joe Biden.

Twitter is thick with tweets about trade problems with China, escalating Iranian threats and congressional subpoenas. You also can order your favorite mug from a 2020 presidential challenger.

Other than campaign buttons, coffee mugs are the most common medium to convey your current political convictions. And candidates are more than willing to oblige.

What might have been outrageous in 2016 seems placid in 2020. Trump’s re-election offers platinum contributors a ceramic coffee cup with the pedestrian “Trump 2020/Keep America Great.” You also can get a Trump bobble-head with an extra-long red tie or a Manhattan glass with “Give me another.”

John Delaney, one of the lesser known Democratic presidential hopefuls, offers a coffee mug where you can improvise your own text. Like, “Are you crazy. John Delaney for President.”

Bernie Sanders has the second-most quoted campaign slogan that emblazons his coffee mugs, “Feel the Bern/2020.” There is a subliminal alternative that features The Bern with Nixon “V” signs and a Trump-like extra-long tie. There also is the clever, “Hindsight is 2020.”

Beto O’Rourke can be celebrated with a mug that creatively says, “Beto.” The coffee mug for Mayor Pete Buttigieg is slightly more exciting, “Pete/2020.” On trendier websites, you can find “Pete is Neat” mugs and more mugs that say “Beto.”

For the less particular, yet highly motivated voter, there is the “Literally Anyone Else” coffee mug. Other options include “He’s not my President” and “Impeach Donald Trump.” 

The Kamala Harris mug echoes her campaign stump speech, “Kamala Kamala Kamala Kamala.” To show her Twitter cred, there is also a mug that says, “Kamala for Ptus.”

Elizabeth Warren’s presidential coffee mug is actual a set of encyclopedias. For the politically incorrect crowd, there is a Warren/2020 mug with an Indian arrow. For the true Warren believers, there is the mug, “PERSIST, Elizabeth Warren/2020.”

The Jay Inslee presidential mug is a disappointment because it doesn’t come with a Starbucks sleeve. 

To please people who will be distracted through much of the 2020 presidential contest, there are special mugs – “November is Coming” and “Pratt/Reynolds.” For self-medicating voters, you can grab a mug that says, “Kanye for President.”

The coffee mug motif is built for Biden. Despite the funny mugs with Biden’s name and a pair of hands groping the 0s in 2020, there are some cabinet-ready candidates, though none better than “Cup of Joe.” It is reminder of those Folger coffee and Dunkin’ Donut ads.

Of course, votes, not coffee cups determine the outcome of elections. Maybe none do as much justice to that ideal than cups bearing “Save us, Michelle” and “Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio.2024.” Sometimes coffee just needs to age.

Presidential candidate coffee mugs.jpg

 

 

Executive Orders Could Give New Hope to Coal Terminal

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

A coal terminal in Longview, Washington may not be fully buried and gone, according to Carl Segestrom, an editorial fellow at High Country News.

In a piece carried by Mother Jones, Segerstrom speculates that Trump administration executive orders issued April 10 could lead to a rewrite of Section 401 rules under the Clean Water Act. States and tribes rely on existing rules to deny permits for facilities that release pollutants into federally protected waters such as the Columbia River.

“Trump’s directive declares that the current process ‘cause(s) confusion and uncertainty, leading to project delays, lost jobs, and reduced economic performance,’” Segerstrom asserts. The administration’s goal, he adds, is to tip the scales more in favor of extractive industries and away from states such as Washington and Oregon that have blocked fossil fuel export facilities.

“In the name of energy dominance, the federal government is looking to curtail state environmental reviews and promote fossil fuel exports. By doing so, it’s wading into an ongoing fight between coastal and Interior West states over permit denials for export facilities on the West Coast,” he writes. 

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

Segerstrom questions whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency will weaken rules enough to resurrect the proposed 44 million ton Millennium coal terminal in Longview. While he doesn’t say so directly, turnover in the White House after the 2020 election could scuttle the rule changes Trump seeks.

The Washington Department of Ecology denied Millennium a water quality permit In September 2017, citing Section 401 rules intended to protect federal waterways. US District Court Judge Robert Bryan rejected an appeal last month that argued the water quality permit denial interfered with the Constitution’s Commerce Clause provision.

Energy industry officials and elected officials from energy-producing inland states have pushed for rule changes that will give them an opportunity to site West Coast terminals to export crude oil, liquified natural gas, propane, methanol and coal to Pacific Rim markets. They argue these fossil fuel exports will in many cases substitute for fuels that produce higher level of greenhouse gas emissions. They also say the exports occur anyway through US ports on the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in longer, more expensive ocean trips to their Asian destinations. 

Fossil fuel export terminals have failed to gain critical Clean Water Act permits, but there are other objections that have played a role, most notably concern over more unit-train traffic and a heightened threat of spills and explosions.

Segerstrom cites Diane Dick, a Longview activist who has fought the coal terminal for nearly a decade. “From the beginning, she said the fight over the terminal felt bigger than just one project; she’s watched it become a poster child for a national debate over energy infrastructure. Now, as the executive branch tilts the scales against local environmental protection, Dick sees a larger question looming: When and based on what can a community protect itself?”

 

Best Bipartisan Opportunity: Lowering Prescription Drug Prices

The best opportunity in a fractious Congress for bipartisan legislative success appears to be in an effort to curb prescription drug prices, which critics say are higher than charged in other Western countries and are forcing some Americans to ration prescriptions or even avoid treatment.

The best opportunity in a fractious Congress for bipartisan legislative success appears to be in an effort to curb prescription drug prices, which critics say are higher than charged in other Western countries and are forcing some Americans to ration prescriptions or even avoid treatment.

If a bipartisan deal is going to be struck this year, it will deal with lowering prescription drug prices, according to an Axios report.

“The White House and top lawmakers from both parties think a bill to lower drug prices has a better chance of becoming law before the 2020 election than any other controversial legislation,” says Caitlin Owens of Axios. “Republican politics on drug prices have changed rapidly. The White House has told Democrats it has no red lines on the substance of drug pricing – a position that should leave pharma quaking.”

The only red line for the White House is tying drug legislation to revisions of the Affordable Care Act. But Trump officials have given the green flag to using Medicare negotiations as leverage to lower drug prices.

Axios indicates momentum is growing for legislative action before the August recess, viewed by many as the last fertile moment for compromise before the start of the 2020 presidential election political desert when nothing can get approved. Bills are already moving in Congress aimed at influencing drug prices by limiting extended monopolies and expanding access to generic prescription drugs.

Republicans are introducing bills that previously would have been viewed as liberal. Texas Senator Mike Cornyn proposes giving the Federal Trade Commission the power to bring antitrust suits against pharmaceutical companies that use patents to discourage competition. House GOP leader Mark Meadows is part of a bipartisan group exploring a proposal to tie Medicare reimbursement rates to the international price of prescription drugs. Florida Senator Rick Scott introduced legislation preventing US drug companies from charging higher list prices than in Canada, France, Britain, Japan and Germany.

This spate of activity around drug pricing has put the pharmaceutical industry on high alert. Drug company officials have warned proposed legislation could slow investments in promising new drug treatments and upset the “pharmaceutical ecosystem.” That is an appeal aimed at President Trump who has expressed strong support for drug therapy advancement. 

Getting anything of significance accomplished in Congress is never easy. Partisan fights over what to do in response the Mueller report, health care and border security could derail any bipartisan effort on prescription drugs. The embrace by Democrats for a single-payor Medicare for All system could be a particular problem in that it could exacerbate the existing price differences between Medicare and private health insurance.

“Anything that gets done would need to be passed before the August recess, which itself is growing more unlikely as time passes and fights over the ACA and other issues erode whatever bipartisan collaboration that might have existed," a former Trump administration official told Axios.

The prospect of legislative action on drug pricing, supported by the Trump administration, has taken its toll on the stock prices of major pharmaceutical companies – and sharply lowered the multi-million compensation of their CEOs.


The Privacy Project Seeks to Inform Deliberate Digital Choices

From wondering if your smart speaker is eavesdropping on you to learning your online data has been sold to advertisers, the digital world has become a scarier place, even as technology has made it more inviting and inevitable. Privacy has suffered, but does it matter? The Privacy Project aims to inform readers, stimulate conversation and move us toward deliberate choices.

From wondering if your smart speaker is eavesdropping on you to learning your online data has been sold to advertisers, the digital world has become a scarier place, even as technology has made it more inviting and inevitable. Privacy has suffered, but does it matter? The Privacy Project aims to inform readers, stimulate conversation and move us toward deliberate choices.

Is Alexa an electronic intruder in your home? Can you go anywhere, including your Airbnb rental, without showing up in a surveillance camera video? Are your social media sites conduits to reveal your behavior patterns and preferences to advertisers – and politicians?

All are questions relating to the privacy we have forfeited without realizing it in the digital age.

The threats to privacy and a level playing field have provoked strong proposals from the likes of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. As a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Warren has called for the break-up of big tech monopolies and regulation to prevent self-dealing – and often opaque – privacy policies.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has led the way for many years on net neutrality, the policy that would prohibit internet providers from manipulating access and online speed to favor their own prime customers and disadvantage competitors. He also has criticized Facebook and other digital leviathans for cashing in on the data they collect, often without express user consent or knowledge, that is sold to advertisers or political advocacy groups.

However, breaking up big tech companies and guaranteeing net neutrality don’t exactly address digital privacy concerns. Those policies don’t litigate the fundamental question of whether consumers unwittingly surrender their privacy for the convenience of tech devices. They don’t rise to the level of asking where the boundaries are between what’s private and what’s fair game.

We live in an increasingly digital world, in which privacy has been clearly compromised and few policies exist to protect privacy. The New York Times has launched the Privacy Project to inform and stimulate conversation toward more deliberate choices.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/opinion/internet-privacy-project.html

We live in an increasingly digital world, in which privacy has been clearly compromised and few policies exist to protect privacy. The New York Times has launched the Privacy Project to inform and stimulate conversation toward more deliberate choices.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/opinion/internet-privacy-project.html

The New York Times has launched a month-long initiative called the Privacy Project, which will examine issues surrounding privacy. In its Sunday opinion section, the Times published pieces from various points of view. Author Samantha Irby said her love of connectivity outweighed any concerns about loss of privacy. Law professor Tim Wu said corporate greed has stripped away privacy for financial gain. The Times publisher writes about how the newspaper views its responsibility in the digital age.

Other articles discussed the safety of women online and how insurance companies can track Fitbit data to use in determining your health insurance rates. Recode editor Kara Swisher wrote that Americans have surrendered too much control over their digital lives and need government regulation to get it back. Columnist Ross Douthat said the solution to compromised privacy is relying less on the internet. Author KJ Dell’Antonia urged people to pull back from social media, which can be an accomplice in sacrificing privacy for families and children.

Serious and stimulating stuff, which the Times intends as conversation-starters. “In recent years, as we’ve been blurring the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private,” Times Editor James Bennet wrote, “we’ve been doing so largely by accident, or by leaving the decisions to the vagaries of innovation and the pull of market incentives.” 

“As consumers and citizens,” Bennet said, “we need to understand the benefits and the costs and make deliberate choices. Rather than hurriedly consenting to someone else’s privacy policy, it’s time for us to write our own.”

Ironically, this conversation is likely to occur online. We are that digitally dependent. But where the conversation occurs is less significant than whether it occurs. Technological giddiness and laissez-faire attitudes aren’t adequate substitutes for what Bennet refers to as “deliberate choices.”

A good place to start in forming your own views is the Times Privacy Project. Some of the articles may enrage you. Others may alarm you. All of them seek to inform you of the choices we all may need to make – sooner than later.

 

A Website Devoted to Data-Driven Facts, Imagine That

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

At a moment in US political history when facts are under assault, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has created what he calls a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances and government’s impact on society.”

Usafacts.org was launched on Tax Day in 2017 after Ballmer’s wife, Connie, challenged him to use more of his estimated $41 billion net worth on philanthropy. That triggered Balmer’s curiosity in exactly how US government programs help Americans who need financial assistance. He quickly discovered the combination of federal, state and local government is enormous – and enormously complex. The information he sought about where governments get their money and how they spend it was not readily available.

That led Balmer to invest $30 million to create a non-partisan nonprofit with a team of economists, researchers and writers to find out by analyzing publicly available data streams.

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The result is a website that features “our nation, in numbers.” Lots and lots of numbers. And fascinating charts and maps. Some of the current topics include how the US economy is performing, what happens with the Social Security deductions from our paychecks and how money flows in and out of the US government.

More provocative topics include why immigrants come to America, who benefits from food stamps and how close the country and individual states are to eliminating fossil fuel emissions. 

Ballmer’s vision was to create a set of documents that parallel what publicly trade corporations are required by law to file. The 2018 annual report serves up a potpourri of interesting facts such as:

  • Incarceration rates have climbed faster than population growth since 1980;

  • There are fewer Americans serving in active duty today than in 2016;

  • US GDP growth has averaged 2.7% since 1980 despite changing approaches in taxation, interest rates and economic stimulus; and

  • Border apprehensions are down 80% since 2000 while the number of border agents has increased from 4,139 in 1992 to 19.437 in 2018. 

The 2018 USAFacts 10-K Report includes a staggering section on risk factors. Some of the risks include:

  • Even though the federal government discourages unhealthy behavior, Americans still have the right to smoke, speed and ignore warning labels.

  • There are “personnel security clearance processing challenges” that create national risk.

  • Government revenue and spending are significantly affected by swings in the economy because of the reliance on personal and corporate income taxes.

  • Failure to control budget deficits can impede the government’s ability to provide needed services over the long run.

  • Government has significant fiscal exposure associated with a changing climate.

  • Constitutional objectives may be significantly affected by social unrest.

  • The financial future of retirees is threatened by insolvency of Social Security trust funds and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

  • Promoting good health, especially for the elderly, faces challenges.

When fully considered, usafacts.org is more than a stiff set of stats. It is eye-opening, deep-dive into America’s box score. There is even a section devoted to American’s interest in and belief of facts.

If facts still matter to you, usafacts.org could be a website worth bookmarking to find a trove of them.

 

Calling Balls and Strikes in the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is unequivocally conservative, but as only the 17th chief justice in US history and after 16 years as chief justice, Roberts is in a position to tip the high court in either direction on highly partisan cases such as extreme gerrymandering, the citizenship question on the Census and, once more, on the constitutionality of Obamacare. (Photo Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is unequivocally conservative, but as only the 17th chief justice in US history and after 16 years as chief justice, Roberts is in a position to tip the high court in either direction on highly partisan cases such as extreme gerrymandering, the citizenship question on the Census and, once more, on the constitutionality of Obamacare. (Photo Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Congress may be deadlocked, but the conservative slant of the US Supreme Court is undeniable with a distinctly conservative chief justice and four ready followers.

Yet, Chief Justice John Roberts, only the 17th chief justice in the history of the country, remains an enigmatic, even secretive figure who broke the hearts of conservatives in 2016 by confirming Obamacare was constitutional. Now, the court he oversees will be faced with deciding seminally partisan cases involving political gerrymandering that could test his ideological leanings. Oral arguments in the cases were made on Tuesday.

The cases involve extreme gerrymandering by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland that good-government advocates are opposing, with electoral results in the pivotal 2020 election in the balance. Both cases, experts say, will test Roberts to see if he is more ideologue than institutionalist. 

Without a lot of fanfare, Roberts has served as chief justice for 16 years. At just 64, he could serve for in his role for another 20 years.

Coincidentally, a biography of Roberts has just been published that confirms advocates from both the political left and right are wary of him, despite his privileged upbringing and a clearly conservative record on voting rights, affirmative action, campaign contributions, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. 

Joan Biskupic, in her biography The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts, describes him as the son of a steel company executive and product of an upper-class, all-white suburban Catholic prep school education. Roberts then went to Harvard for his undergraduate and law school degrees.

As an attorney, Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court before his nomination by President George W. Bush to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died before his confirmation, Bush upgraded Roberts’ nomination to chief justice. In his confirmation hearing, Roberts compared the role of judges to baseball umpires who calls balls and strikes. 

Now, the chief justice, who also doubles as the adult-in-the-room swing vote on the court, must decide on a pair of mirror cases that reflect unvarnished political gerrymandering. He also will deal with a case involving the citizenship question on the 2020 US Census, which also pits GOP ideology against a clear violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

Biskupic thinks these cases could expose a side of Roberts often overlooked – his eagerness to avoid civil division. Citing Roberts’ vote in the Obamacare ruling, she says: “Viewed only through a judicial lens, [Roberts’] moves were not consistent, and his legal arguments were not entirely coherent. But he brought people and their different interests together. His moves may have been good for the country at a time of division and a real crisis in health care, even as they engendered, in the years since, anger, confusion and distrust.”

Roberts has shown a willingness to cross swords with his conservative soul mates, such as when he admonished President Trump for trashing a federal court judge. However, conservatives will expect Roberts to stay at his ideological home on seminal cases involving raw politics. The question is whether Roberts will stick to his ideological roots or, in cases involving partisan issues, perform like his proverbial umpire calling balls and strikes.

 

Congressional Drug Pricing Strategy Begins to Emerge

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

The Senate Finance Committee pummeled seven pharmaceutical executives a week ago about price gouging. Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins considering two bills to lower drug prices that may attract bipartisan and bicameral support.

The House bills are the CREATES Act and “pay for delay” legislation. Both aim to limit anticompetitive actions by pharmaceutical companies to block or delay introduction of lower-cost generic versions of their brand name drugs.

A version of the CREATES (Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples) Act passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer on a solid bipartisan vote. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation, if passed into law, could save consumers and private insurers billions of dollars, while also contributing to reduce the federal budget deficit.

“The bipartisan CREATES Act is a free-market solution that respects intellectual property rights and encourages greater competition that will inevitably lower the price of prescription medications for the American patient,” Iowa GOP Senator Charles Grassley said. 

The “pay for delay” legislation also has a Senate counterpart introduced last December by Grassley and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a 2020 presidential candidate. The measure seeks to limit pharmaceutical companies from striking deals to prevent or delay biosimilar and interchangeable biologics to generic versions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made the issue of high-cost drugs a legislative priority, believes it is smart strategy to get a couple of wins before tackling the more controversial issue of allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. Her strategy of starting small is a reflection of the political clout drug companies have on Capitol Hill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, took the lead last week in lambasting pharmaceutical company executives as “morally repugnant” for their inability to explain why prescription drugs are more expensive in the United States than overseas. “You’re willing to sit by and hose the American consumer while giving price breaks to consumers overseas,” Wyden said. 

Independent healthcare analyst Joshua Cohen, writing for Forbes, said drug companies aren’t entirely to blame. He explained that health plans, pharmacy benefit managers and employer health insurance sponsors negotiate sizable rebates on listed drug prices. Insureds don’t always see the benefits of those rebates, Cohen added, because their coinsurance is based on the list price, not the lower rebate price. The result, he said, is a “public outcry aimed at the drug companies for high prices.”

“To be constructive, [Congress] should not only probe the pricing of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers, it should also investigate the billing and pricing practices of hospitals, physicians, and insurers. Ultimately the problems related to the relentless rise of overall healthcare costs are not going to be solved by putting blinders on and solely targeting the pharmaceutical industry,” Cohen concluded.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

Bloomberg story last month summarized the issue simply. “Americans spend more on prescription drugs – average costs are about $1,200 per person per year – than anyone else in the world. It’s true that they take a lot of pills. But what really sets the United States apart from most other countries is high prices. Cancer drugs in the United States routinely cost $10,000 a month. Even prices for old drugs have spiked, as companies have bought up medicines that face no competition and boosted charges.” 

Sensing congressional action is at hand, pharmaceutical companies are taking actions or expressing a willingness to do so. Eli Lilly announced it will sell a cheaper generic version of its rapid-action Humalog insulin.

"We don't want anyone to ration or skip doses of insulin due to affordability. And no one should pay the full Humalog retail price," Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO Dave Ricks said. He described the generic drug as "a bridge that addresses gaps in the current system until we have a more sustainable model."