While we are asking questions

There will be a great deal written about Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony under oath. I emphasize the last two words of the preceding sentence. The President and his advocates’ rebuttals will not be under oath, at least at this time, so we should remember this fact.

Yet, it got me to thinking about asking various people a question under oath to see how they would fare. In no particular order:

Senator Marco Rubio, you have bragged on playing a heavy role in the federal government stiffing insurance companies for taking on adverse risk under the ACA. Can you explain to Americans why they must suffer with higher insurance premiums for you to score political points?

Senator Mitch McConnell, The New York Times reported that just before the 2012 election, you had a report by the Congressional Research Service buried that concluded trickle down economics does not work. In light of the recent failures of that approach in Kansas, where tax rates have just been increased to pay for services, does that seem dishonest to hide such information from Americans, especially since the President’s tax plan had some of Kansas’ ideas?

Former President Barack Obama, do you feel remorse about not pushing the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction plan back when it might have gotten some footing and we could have done more with our debt?

Former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while you may have reason to raise issues about the election, would you say that you ran a poor campaign, not focusing on states that you took for granted such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania while you tried to win states like Arizona? Do you feel you let your opponent speak to the disenfranchised voter more than you did?

Senator Ted Cruz, you single handedly shut down the government in October 2013, almost causing us to default on our debts until ten female senators broke the impasse. Do you feel that showed you as part of the problem with Washington? Why should we trust your judgment?

President Donald Trump, since you have been shown to lie about 70% of the time as a candidate and incumbent and your five biographers all note you have a problem with the truth, why should we believe what you say just about anything?

There are more folks I would like to ask questions of. Let me know some of yours.

 

A mean spirited, dishonest budget

On PBS Newshour last night, Mark Shields and David Brooks defined the President’s budget succinctly. They said it was a “mean-spirited, dishonest budget.” I had been searching for the right words to define a proposed budget that kicks people in poverty in the teeth. Fortunately, Senator John McCain said the budget was “dead on arrival.”

The budget is bothersome in so many levels as it severely cuts Medicaid and food stamps, as well as other programs. The latter has grown because of the greater number of people in need. Yet, while these cuts are occurring, tax breaks for the wealthy would be provided.

But, it does not end there. It has been reported about the extra rosy and very hard to achieve projections on revenue growth. While this is not too uncommon, it is still sleight of hand. When people say tax cuts pay for themselves, that is as believable as the check is in the mail. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget will say there often are some revenue improvements, but nothing near paying for the entire cut.

Yet, there is more dishonesty. Former Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers said in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that there is some double counting of revenue sources, an obvious error. Per Summers, “You can’t use the growth benefits of tax cuts once to justify an optimistic baseline and then again to claim that the tax cuts do not cost revenue. At least you cannot do so in a world of logic.” Summers noted he has not seen something like this in a budget proposal in 40 years and a business person should know better than to double count like this.

To be brutally frank, this is not what the President advertised in the campaign. He touted his business leadership as something the country sorely needs. Yet, former Speaker John Boehner said with the exception of foreign policy, Trump’s presidency has been a “complete disaster.” I would argue his point on the foreign policy omission. But, it should be noted is how this budget, the AHCA bill, and other measures harm the very constituents that rose up to vote for this newcomer. He is screwing them and they still lack awareness that is what he is doing.

Getting back to Brooks, I have cited his earlier observation after the horribly planned and executed travel ban. “This White House is equal parts chaos and incompetence.” Summers used the latter word in his piece, as well. We can now add “mean spirited and dishonest.” These are not words that he had hoped to elicit when elected.

 

 

Celebration for passing a bill may have been premature

With a White House eager to claim legislative victory, there was a celebratory bash after the Republican led House passed the AHCA by a squeaker of margins 217 to 213. The bill has been vilified by several advocacy groups like the AMA, American Cancer Society and AARP and it has still not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The bill is also dead in the water in the Senate “once it gets sent there.”

Wait a minute, the last sentence said “once it gets sent there.” To the surprise of some Republican House members, the AHCA bill has not yet been sent to the Senate. Why, you might ask? Since the House did not wait for the CBO to score the cost and impact of the bill on the numbers of uninsured, it cannot be included in the budgeting process, and would thus require 60 votes, not 51 to pass in the Senate. The whole idea was to sneak the bill through this process, so it did not need the super-majority of 60 votes, which it cannot achieve.

Unless the CBO scores this where it saves a threshold amount of the budget, it may not qualify. So, the House leadership has not yet sent the AHCA to the Senate. If they did and the CBO results were not favorable, the House would have to start over. Again, I should reiterate that this bill cannot get even the 51 votes needed due to the impact on Medicaid. As we speak, about two dozen state governors are beseeching the Senate about not harming Medicaid. Unlike the House, the Senate is actually listening.

So, the victory lap on mile 250 of the Indy 500, may have been premature. Voting on something without knowing its impact is not the wisest course of action and is unbecoming of a legislator we trust to do our homework.

 

Budget, budget, budget

Now, that agreement has been reached on setting a budget for the current fiscal year which is seven months old, I have three comments. First, bipartisan collaboration is the reason this budget passed. Thus far, the House has been trying to pass legislation arguing amongst Republicans. Bipartisan legislation is how John Boehner got bills passed.

Second, it is interesting how we are celebrating Congress for doing its job. This is one of the easier, substantive things they do, yet it should not take seven months into the fiscal year. Keeping the lights on is the most important thing they do, yet they can’t do even this well.

Third, I have witnessed yet again a Congressional candidate to replace now budget director Mick Mulvaney tout he is in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Folks, we have $20 trillion in debt. We need more revenue than expenses. And, we cannot cut our way there. We need to increase revenue. It should be noted the President’s tax plan is estimated to increase the debt from $2 to $6 trillion.

We need more serious discussions than this President and Congress are prepared to do. We must roll up our sleeves and add wisely to revenue and cut wisely our expenses, as both efforts are required. If someone tells you otherwise, mention the $20 trillion debt figure.

More Friday Freakiness

Most bloggers recognize these compilations of thoughts for what they are – not enough subject for a post, but something to touch on. In this spirit, a few thoughts for the week.

I want to commend the White House for having a briefing for all 100 Senators over the troubling issue of North Korea. This is a sobering topic and it deserves sober review. I would encourage more of the same on topics of national security.

With that said, I am hopeful that cooler and more knowledgeable heads will be advising the President and he will heed their advice. We do not need the President doing what he is prone to do which is running off at the mouth and letting his ego make decisions.

One of several examples of this is the White House staff being careful not to endorse the recent Turkey election results which gave more power to President Erdogan. The election results have been called into question and are being reviewed by a third party, who Erdogan is making fun of. Of course, our President did not get the memo and fired off congratulations to Erdogan for gaining even more power.

The devil is in the details, but the President has outlined his Tax Reform plan. Several things need to be highlighted therein, especially after hearing Mnuchin and Mulvaney talk about it. Several nonpartisan tax measurement groups have noted the tax cuts will raise the debt from $2 to $6 trillion over the next ten years, a 10% to 30% increase. The M boys – Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Budget Director Mulvaney – have said the common refrain that the “tax cuts will pay for themselves through growth.” While tax cuts have some economic effect, the data from these nonpartisan tax measurement groups said they have historically fallen well short of paying for themselves.

Then, we must look at who benefits. While everyone seems to benefit, the folks who make the most benefit the most. In addition to the individual tax rate cut proposed, the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax rate are eliminated, both which help the wealthy. Adding to this the reduction in corporate tax rate, which has a few interesting twists, plus repealing the ACA additional tax on higher paid people, the folks who “have” will have more which will increase the income disparity.

On top of this, Mnuchin said the President has no intention of releasing his tax returns. Mulvaney said people do not care. So, I guess the more than 2/3 of Americans who said they want to see the tax returns do not matter. For those keeping score, this becomes an official broken campaign promise and to me is firm indication our President has something to hide.

I wish I could talk about other things, but this man dominates the news which is the way he wants it.

Voting on something important not knowing the cost is malfeasance

Allow me to come right to the point. Voting on a repeal and replacement healthcare law without it being measured by the CBO for its financial impact is malfeasance. My old party has waited seven years for this, they can at least know what it costs, who is helped and harmed by it and its impact on the debt. Trying to ram something this complicated through is about as poor stewardship as can be found.

This especially true with at least two hospital groups and two doctor groups coming out against it, not to mention the largest lobbying group for retired persons, the AARP. This is especially true with the numbers of people impacted, in particular, the lower paid and older people. As a retired benefit actuary, consultant and manager, I am also troubled by the naysaying of the imperfect ACA in the first place.

The ACA is not in death spiral so says the American Academy of Actuaries. It could be improved, but it is not a disaster as spouted by Messrs. Trump, Ryan and McConnell. It frustrates me that a law that is working pretty good expanding coverage, is being beaten on to support a change that appears to be ill-conceived. It also frustrates me we are not using data driven analysis to decide what to do.

Medicaid expansion is a “no brainer” said Ohio Governor John Kasich, the most reasonable Presidential candidate in my view. This is also the view of The Commonwealth Fund, Economic Policy Institute, RAND Corporation, Kaiser Family Foundation and a study by George Washington University. We have data to contrast the results in the 19 states that did not expand to those of 31 states that did. What I have read is the states that did are seeing fewer personal bankruptcies than before and improved hospital accounts receivable rates.

But, a huge factor should be the following. The ACA administration is already built. As a former benefits manager and consultant, I have witnessed far too many mistakes in administration by reputable insurers and state and federal governments. While the ACA exchange roll out fits this bill, it has now stabilized and is working. My strong advice is to improve the ACA and not throw the baby out with the bath water. To be frank, there is so much in fighting in the Republican Party, that may be the only course of action achievable.

Being safer is harder when we lose focus

Our new President used fear as one of his key marketing messages to get elected. Let’s face it, fear sells especially to an uninformed audience. He feels obligated to act on those selling points as a show of force – build that wall, limit travel and focus on Islamic terrorists. It is not unlike a gorilla beating on his chest before a fight. They are largely symbolic than effective.

The dilemma is not only are these efforts not going to make us safer, they will actually have the opposite effect. Conservative columnist David Brooks said not only was the travel ban rolled out with equal parts chaos and incompetence, the ban will accomplish nothing except make us look poor in the eyes of the world and be used against us by terrorists. The best defense against extremists is a welcoming and flourishing diverse society.

The same is true with the heightened focus using the words “Islamic Terrorists” at the expense of funding of other terrorism fighting within our borders. Per an editorial in The Charlotte Observer called “In war on terror: look closer to home,” the following quote struck me.

“Charles Kruzman, who teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, say that 74% of the law enforcement agencies surveyed listed anti-government extremism as one of the top three terror threats in their jurisdictions – compared with only 39% who felt the same about Al Qaeda and like groups. And, with good reason: an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in terror plots since 9/11, in contrast to the 337 per year by right-wing extremists.”

There are over 1,000 domestic terrorist groups in the US that range from right-wing extremists to anti-government to white supremacists groups. Yet, the President feels we should focus less on this problem preferring to use the funding to fight a much lesser problem. To me, this is the direct influence of Steve Bannon who catered his Breitbart website to alt-right extremists.

Finally, building a wall between us and Mexico is symbolic more than it will be effective. The cost will likely be higher than the recent Homeland Security estimate, as that does not include land acquisition and cost overruns tend to occur. Plus, the annual maintenance is not factored in. Yet, illegal immigrants are largely here and the flow of immigrants has slowed. The ones that are here are accretive to the economy buying goods and paying taxes. If the President thinks building a wall will solve a problem, knock yourself out.

So, our President is focusing on three things that will do little to make us safer. Yet, these bumper sticker solutions were boasted about on the campaign trail, so he feels he must beat on his chest and say look what I have done. Since our money is dear with almost $20 trillion in debt, we could be spending that money more wisely in my view actually using a data driven analysis on where it would be most helpful to make us safer. The problem it is hard to put data driven analysis on a bumper sticker, or Tweet.