NPR

Green New Deal is More of a Signal Than a Statute

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The Green New Deal resolution just introduced in Congress is less a plan of action and more a barometer of a new political wind.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now. The Green New Deal is the Democratic response.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now.

Because the Senate remains in Republican control and the White House is occupied by someone who denies the science of climate change, Democrats can only point to policies that wean America off fossil fuels and accelerate a renewable energy future. It will be up to states such as Oregon, where Democrats are in solid control, to advance specific climate change legislation, whether in the form of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime.

The optics of the Green New Deal nonbinding resolution’s introduction were unmistakable. Long-time environmental crusader Ed Markey, D-Mass, shared the platform with freshman phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey said, “Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine, but in the light of the sun.” Ocasio-Cortez added, “All great American programs, everything from The Great Society to the New Deal, started with a vision for our future.”

Critics called the plan unrealistic, lacking in specifics and too costly. They said advocates of the Green New Deal need to do a “whole lot more homework.” To youthful supporters, the criticism sounds a lot like patronizing parental pessimism.

Ocasio-Cortez shot back: “For 40 years we have tried to let the private sector take care of this. They said, 'We got this, we can do this, the forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.' Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what that means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay, but taxpayers have to pay."

To be sure, there would be huge technical and significant economic challenges to reach a zero-carbon target in 10 years. For example, cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but many people hold onto their cars as long as 10 years. One of the biggest sources of methane emissions are cows.

"Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us," Ocasio-Cortez told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Youthful supporters are undaunted by those challenges. Sunrise Movement held a web meeting with supporters from all over the country and pledged to amp up lobbying for the Green New Deal during February. One of the group’s leaders said sit-ins may occur in the offices of Members of Congress who don’t endorse the Green New Deal.

But “old-timers” chimed in, too. “The Green New Deal resolution is essential in building and sustaining momentum to deal with the climate crisis,” Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer wrote his constituents. “Its message is one of ambitious, achievable and necessary hope. That’s why I’m excited to partner with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help write this resolution and define its goals for this Congress.”

Congressional insiders recognize the Green New Deal won’t move in any significant way in this Congress. What they miss is that Ocasio-Cortez is a Member of Congress with a voting card and someone with an outsized following on Twitter who is driving the progressive political agenda. The only US political figure with more Twitter interactions if President Trump.

“When a 29-year-old former bartender of Puerto Rican descent beats a senior Democratic leader of the House, and then proceeds to set the political agenda during her first week in office, it’s more than a cute social media story," wrote Antonio Garcia Martinez in Wired. “She’s a harbinger of a new American political reality.”

This is what separates the Green New Deal from other legislative initiatives. It has become a generational anthem, not just a piece of legislation.

 

States Poised to March Through Tax Loophole

Tax loopholes are normally associated with corporations and wealthy individuals, but top officials in New York and California have announced plans to march through a loophole that would allow their taxpayers to bypass a new federal limit on the deductibility of state and local taxes.

Tax loopholes are normally associated with corporations and wealthy individuals, but top officials in New York and California have announced plans to march through a loophole that would allow their taxpayers to bypass a new federal limit on the deductibility of state and local taxes.

High-tax blue states such as New York and California may join the parade of tax avoidance planners looking for loopholes to march through in the GOP-backed federal tax overhaul to contravene the $10,000 deductibility limitation on state and local taxes.

With the ink hardly dry on new federal tax legislation, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California state Senator Kevin de Leon are proposing schemes that would effectively convert state income tax payments into charitable contributions, thus making them eligible as deductions on federal income tax returns.

These aren’t clandestine tax maneuvers. Cuomo announced his intention in his State of the State Address and de Leon spelled out his plan in an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel. Other states with legislative sessions this year may follow suit.

According to de Leon, “We have no other choice but to move forward with this type of policy because, in the end, the tax policy that was just passed in Washington will disproportionately hurt a state like California. And when you hurt a state like California, you're hurting the rest of the country, because we are the economic engine for the nation.”

One estimate indicates the limitation on state and local taxes (known as SALT) could save the federal government as much as $100 billion per year based on 2017 numbers. Democrats – and Republicans – from states with high income and property taxes claim their constituents would pay a disproportionate share of that $100 billion.

Like most tax issues, there is a lot of room to argue.

Supporters of the $10,000 SALT deduction cap contend that will cover most middle-income taxpayers who itemize expenses on their federal tax returns. Republicans say many more taxpayers will skip itemization and opt to claim the substantially higher standard deduction in the tax bill, arguably simplifying their tax returns.

Critics of the SALT limitation say it will subject middle- and upper-income taxpayers in high-tax states, including Oregon, to double taxation. Data shows 50 percent of the federal deduction for local property taxes comes from just six states – California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania.

The Cuomo-de Leon strategy seeks to exploit a 2011 IRS ruling that treats a donation to a state’s General Fund as a charitable contribution and therefore a deductible expense. De Leon contemplates a California tax scheme where every $1 in “contributed” taxes qualifies a taxpayer for a $1 tax credit.

“That is the law,” de Leon says. “That is permissible. So what we're doing is en masse taking advantage of this opportunity to do a roundabout, if you will, against policies from Washington that are very hurtful towards a state like California.”

Asked by Siegel if his scheme passes the “smell test,” de Leon said, “It does pass the smell test because we're already doing it here in California. I authored a measure back in 2014 that allows for charitable donations to state college affordability grants.” He add that other states, including red states such as Florida and Arizona, had enacted similar tax provisions.

Cuomo called the SALT deduction limit “economic civil war” as he called for “dramatic action to save ourselves and preserve our state's economy.” In addition to pursuing the tax-payment-as-contribution loophole, Cuomo said New York would pursue legal action to challenge the constitutionality of the limitation, though legal observers questioned whether legal action will succeed.

Of course, a simpler approach would be for Congress to modify the federal tax legislation to eliminate or raise the state and local tax limitation. After the dust settles and IRS rules emerge implementing provisions in the tax bill, there may be a need for what lawmakers call a technical correction bill to clean up, clarify or cashier hazy, hasty or poorly thought-through provisions.

Despite Democratic opposition to the tax-cut legislation itself, a fix that includes a modification of the SALT limitation could attract bipartisan support and easily pass.

 

The Politics and Facts of Obamacare

The bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, coupled with a tide of canceled health insurance policies, has put a dozen Democratic senators, including Oregon's Jeff Merkley, in a defensive position a year ahead of the 2014 election.

Merkley has joined other Senate Democrats in supporting legislation to allow people to retain their health insurance plans that have been canceled because they fail to meet the minimum requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

The balky federal Affordable Care Act website is blamed for embarrassingly sluggish sign-ups for health insurance coverage, which totaled only slightly more than 106,000 in October. However, the political panic button has been pushed because the existing health care plan cancellations undercut President Obama's oft-repeated promise than no one would be forced to give up their health plan. No less than former President Bill Clinton says action is needed to make the promise whole.

Republicans have dubbed 12 Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014 the Obamacare Dozen. North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan is already the target of attack ads, which have eroded her poll numbers so she now finds herself in a dead heat with potential GOP challengers.

Several of the 12 Democrats, including senators who just months ago were viewed as invincible in 2014, are pivoting to separate themselves from Obamacare by supporting a fix to the canceled policy problem, advocating for a longer period to enroll in a new health plan or demanding an investigation on why the website rollout tanked.

For his part, Obama has tried to absorb some of the frustration by apologizing for the poor website rollout and admitting "we fumbled the rollout on this health care law," as he unveiled his own fix to allow people to retain current health care plans.

Reforming Banking Reform

Sallie Krawcheck, who Fortune called the last honest analyst on Wall Street, says true banking reform needs to come from within banks, not just through governmental regulation.The nation is still climbing out of the economic crater caused by a financial meltdown on Wall Street. Congress enacted banking reforms, but a twice-fired top banking executive says we haven't dealt with the underlying cause of bank failures — incentives to take excessive risk.

Sallie Krawcheck, who held top wealth management jobs at Bank of America and Citibank before being fired, says trying to regulate banks in the face of complex financial dealings is a bit of a lost cause. A better remedy is to reward banking executives for being prudent instead of risky.

Despite her firings, Fortune magazine put Krawcheck on the cover of one of its editions in 2002, calling her the last honest analyst on Wall Street.

One of her most intriguing suggestions is to stop compensating top banking officials with stock and pay them instead with bonds. Krawcheck says holding equity is invitation to take risks, while holding bonds is a reminder to exercise caution.

Some of her other ideas include requiring higher and appropriate levels of capitalization for banks commensurate with the amount and type of risks they undertake, something she says no matter of regulation can fully cover. She also advocates shrinking boards of directors for banks so there is more accountability.

The Postal Service and the Internet

Americans face a slowdown in communications — from a pending loss of Saturday mail delivery to competitively more sluggish access to the Internet. Both slowdowns have an impact on jobs.

The financially beleaguered U.S. Postal Service will drop Saturday mail delivery in August as a way to trim $2 billion from its hemorrhaging budget. While most Americans, especially those who pay bills and talk to friends online, have shrugged their collective shoulders at the cut, some people are bracing for the inevitable pinch.

Philip Rubio, assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T, told NPR's Scott Simon that since the Civil War the Postal Service has been a reliable employer of minorities and military veterans. 

For African-Americans, delivering mail was a path to middle class, with a decent salary, solid employee benefits and Civil Service protection. Rubio said mail delivery provided many African-Americans a paycheck as they pursued advanced degrees to become doctors or lawyers. By 1940, 28 percent of black postal workers had attended college, five times the average in the overall population. 

For veterans, working at the Post Office was a stable job. After World War II, Rubio said as many as half of the employees at the Post Office were veterans. More than 30 percent of current Postal Service employees are veterans.

Rubio says layoffs will undoubtedly affect postal workers who are 50 years or older. They may have difficulty finding jobs matching their current pay and benefits and could wind up lengthening the line of long-term unemployed Americans.

College Dreams Morph to Apprenticeships

As college costs rise, some students are looking to apprenticeships as a way to get training and a job without huge debt.With the cost of college growing, along with student debt and doubts about the value of a college education, attention is returning to workforce training to fill skilled jobs left vacant for lack of qualified candidates.

NPR featured a group of college-prep students in Charlotte, N.C. who gave up their dreams of a college degree for a more promising future as apprentices in a Siemens factory that makes gas turbines and engines. Siemens hired six apprentices to train as replacements for workers who are nearing retirement age. It is the first apprenticeship training program in the United States by the German-based company.

The apprenticeship isn't a cake walk. It takes four years to complete and yields an associate degree and a journeyman certificate in manufacturing technology. More important, it offers a guaranteed job with a starting salary around $44,000 per year, employee benefits and opportunities for travel.

The Commerce Clause Yellow Brick Road

The Commerce Clause has been used over time by the Supreme Court to enable and block economic regulation. Now a new watershed case involving an individual health care mandate is sitting on the high court's docket.The Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution has been a source of strong disagreement since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Arguments over this clause, which on its face controls what economic activity Congress can and cannot regulate, has intertwined with New Deal legislation, the ability to ship wine directly to consumers and, now, the Affordable Care Act.

Nina Totenberg, the encyclopedic NPR reporter who covers the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered a brief history lesson on the Commerce Clause this week, as anticipation builds for the high court's decision on what detractors sneeringly call ObamaCare.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to question how far the Commerce Clause could be stretched after the Supreme Court, led by Jefferson nemesis John Marshall, ruled in 1824 that the Constitution gave Congress broad powers.

Totenberg says the argument picked up with intensity 70 years later when the federal government tried to limit the antitrust actions of emerging large corporations. Federal officials suffered a setback in an 1895 ruling involving a sugar company when the court said the government lacked jurisdiction to regulate its activities because most refining was conducted within a state. 

Direct Democracy by Liquid Feedback

The burgeoning Pirate Party in Germany is giving democracy a younger, tech-savvy face as it taps into "liquid feedback," a fluid channel of Internet chat rooms and forums dedicated to policy discussions. 

It is already Germany's fourth largest political party, attracting young people who never before took an interest in politics. The party took nearly 8 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia last month, giving it representation in four of Germany's 16 state legislatures.

Pirate Party leaders told NPR liquid feedback affords it a non-traditional structure for communicating with and activating a grassroots clientele. They say liquid feedback, based on a software algorithm to generate speedy results, is a key tool to promote transparent and participatory decision-making.

Critics claim that Internet noodling may have virtue, but could be too cumbersome and slow to shape substantive, timely policies. They also say feedback loops could be torpedoed by online pranksters and provocateurs.

Leaders in other parties, perhaps looking over their political shoulders, deride liquid feedback as a gimmick and fad or, worse, a tool to steal someone else's ideas and ply them as their own. But Pirate Party leaders say other parties, including the Green Party, have had their day and now have become stale, at least in the eyes of many younger citizens who are newly engaged in politics.

The urge for direct democracy is not foreign in the United States. Vermont stages what it calls Town Meeting Day on the first Tuesday in March to enable Vermonters to elect local officials, vote on budgets and decide other important issues, such as whether to let pigs run free on town streets. It started in 1762 in Bennington, 15 years before Vermont was even created.

Direct democracy was not popular among the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who were interested in creating a republic. John Madison warned about the "mischiefs of faction." Alexander Hamilton conceded direct democracy would be ideal, but concluded perfection was beyond human grasp and tyranny would result.

It wasn't until the Progressive Era, a historical moment of great discontent not dissimilar from today, that citizens claimed the right of lawmaking through the power initiatives, referenda and recalls of elected officials.

More recent stabs at direct democracy include efforts to abolish the Electoral College and replace it with direction election of the President of the United States. Some have called for more fundamental direct digital democracy or E-democracy, which leverages new technology for voting intended to yield faster, more collaborative decision-making.

Health Care System in Limbo

Supreme Court justices may have more to weigh than just the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.If the U.S. Supreme Court finds the federal health care reform act unconstitutional later this year, experts say it could unravel more of the nation's health care system than anticipated, including Medicare.

Judy Feder, a former Clinton administration official, tells NPR's Julie Rovner that the push toward more integrated and coordinated health care delivery would be disrupted.

Gail Wilensky, who ran Medicare and Medicaid programs for President H.W. Bush, says voiding federal health care reform would erase the most recent benchmarks for doctor and hospital payment rates. 

"Hospitals might not get paid. Nursing homes might not get paid. Doctors might not get paid," Wilensky says. "Changes in coverage that have begun to take effect for the elderly, such as closing the donut hole, might not happen." The effects, she adds, would undoubtedly spill over to everyone in the health care system.

Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law, likens it a train wreck. "We could find ourselves at a grand stopping point for the entire health care system." One problem she cites is the possibility of thousands of Medicare policies being suddenly null and void.

Hacking the Chamber of Commerce

Instead of hacking into its computers, it might have been easier to snap a photo of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's main message, hanging from huge banners facing the White House. Photo by US Chamber.On the same day a Goldman Sachs economist described the Chinese Communist Party as a "chamber of commerce," a group of Chinese hackers were uncovered eavesdropping on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Fabled magazine publisher Henry Luce famously lamented the loss of China to Communists by noting "Communism is the most monstrous cancer which ever attacked humanity." Now it is just attacking computers.

ABC News reported the hackers, allegedly aided by the Chinese military, have been sneaking peeks of U.S. Chamber of Commerce computers for more than a year. Maybe they are looking for a blueprint of how to act more like a chamber of commerce.

Jim O'Neill, an economist with Goldman Sachs, told NPR that in his 21 years of observing the Chinese, he concluded that while it is a run by a "Communist Party leadership, it's almost more like a chamber of commerce than a political party."

Shoe Leather and Good Ideas

Shoe leather and good ideas can get the job done in Washington, D.C. even if you aren't a high-rolling lobbyist with wads of campaign cash to spread around.NPR's Planet Money segment carried a recent piece focusing on how fundraising affects access to Members of Congress. Money is a factor in the political world of Washington, D.C., but don't underestimate the old-fashioned values of shoe leather and a good idea.

Planet Money reporters interviewed former lobbyist Jimmy Williams who recalled an incident where a congressman questioned why he should me with Williams or his principals after they had failed to respond to his campaign contribution solicitation.

Working Capitol Hill may not be that politically raw all the time, but money does talk in the halls of Congress, just as it does anywhere else.

If you don't have lots of loot, your best options are hard work and clear thinking.

Most federal lobbying is conducted with fact sheets and field trips, not briefcases full of cash.

Good lobbyists work with their clients, which can rang from big corporations to local cities and towns, to sharpen their agendas, making sure their asks are reasonable and fit the times.

For example, you can save the plane fare to Washington, D.C. to plead for an appropriations earmark. They are so last Congress.

Creating Echo Chambers for Issues

Advocacy campaigns have become battlefields for issues such as restricting use of the chemical BPA in plastic containers.Terms such as "lobbying," "advocacy" and "public affairs" are used commonly – and not always flatteringly – when discussing influencing Congress. NPR's Morning Edition ran a piece this week that gave a glimpse of what those terms mean on the ground.

"The art of public affairs," says Anne Womack-Kolton, a vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council, "is telling your story as many ways as you can to create that echo chamber around whatever target you are trying to reach."

The NPR story centered on the congressional debate over restricting use of bisphenol A (BPA) in manufacturing hard-plastic drinking bottles, including baby bottles. Chemical companies insist BPA is safe, while consumer activists say it interferes with reproductive development in animals and has been linked to heart disease and diabetes in humans.