fresh voices from the front lines of change







The legislative battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions is finally getting into full gear in the Senate with Wednesday's introduction of a comprehensive climate change bill.

McClatchy News Service reports:

The landmark legislation -- called the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act -- would force the U.S. to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, setting more ambitious targets than a bill that passed the House this summer. By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 80 percent from 2005 levels.

Sponsoring a bill, of course, is the easy part. The hard part will come next, as Boxer tries to fend off many Republicans and some Democrats who want to derail the legislation by suggesting it would be far too costly, particularly during tough economic times.

Opponents are ready for battle, saying Boxer and Kerry are out to impose a new national tax on energy.

"The national energy tax was a terrible idea when it passed the House, and it is an even worse idea now," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Middle-class families and small businesses struggling to make ends meet shouldn't be punished with costly legislation that will increase electricity bills, raise gasoline prices and ship more American jobs overseas."

But one prominent Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is on board as a supporter. Some statistics cited by Boxer help explain why:

She cited a report by Pew Charitable Trusts that said 10,000 new clean energy businesses were launched in California from 1998 to 2007. During that period, clean energy investments created more than 125,000 jobs and generated jobs 15 percent faster than the California economy as a whole, Boxer said.

The Hill says that Sen. Sherrod Brown is angling to get more help for American manufacturers added to the climate bill: "Already Brown has won a few battles. But he and senators from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana and Michigan say there’s still work to be done. Leaving their concerns unanswered could derail one of the Obama administration’s highest priorities." Among the changes Brown wants: "Tariffs on foreign competitors operating in countries with lax rules for greenhouse gas emissions."

Grist has this roundup of reaction to the bill, including this sizing-up of the legislative process from Bill McKibben: "Boxer’s committee, EPW, is one of the Senate’s most progressive, and what Boxer and Kerry will introduce tomorrow is widely expected to mark the left edge of the debate—everything that follows will push the bill in a weaker direction."

A sour note on the legislation's chances is being sounded by Bryan Walsh at Time:

The Boxer-Kerry bill is only one of several pieces of legislation that the Senate will need to consider as it takes on cap-and-trade — about which the Finance Committee is only one powerful group that will have its say — and the chances that any kind of carbon cap will pass seem vanishingly small. As long as the Senate is stuck on other business, like health care, President Obama and his negotiators will have their hands essentially tied at the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen three months from now — they can't commit the U.S. to carbon cuts internationally, if the Senate won't support them at home. That was the pitfall former President Bill Clinton failed to avoid during the Kyoto Protocol — and Obama won't repeat it.

Poltico reports that it's Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry rather than Boxer who gets top billing on the legislation. "You'll have to ask Sen. Reid," Kerry said when asked why, referring to the Senate majority leader. "But some Democratic aides also see in the assignment a knock on Boxer, who tried but failed to pass the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill last year."

No holiday for health care reform

The Senate Finance Committee now plans to hold a final vote on its health care reform proposal next week. That's the date committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus set Wednesday evening with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Hill reports that the Baucus bill would then be combined with a bill already approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee—which, unlike the Baucus bill, would include a public health insurance option—for floor action beginning the week of October 13.

That would normally be a week the Senate would be in recess, allowing senators to spend a week or two in their states. Reid canceled that recess on Wednesday to keep the health care bill moving.

The drama continues to be around the public option "trigger" proposal from Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe—still the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee whose vote is in play. TPM's Brian Beutler confirms earlier reports that Snowe is considering introducing a trigger amendment on the Senate floor. He also reports that she may vote "no" on the final Finance Committee bill to increase her negotiating leverage on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reporters, is weighing in with an ad campaign and a website supporting the reform effort. While the ad is a generic "support reform" statement that will air in the Washington area, the fact sheets backing the ad are explicit: "A public plan option is critical for reducing premiums and overall costs and improving the quality of services for all Americans, including those who enroll in other types of insurance plans."

Keith Richburg at the WP asks: "What makes a health plan a Cadillac?"

Many proponents of taxing high-end employer-based coverage have singled out the titans of Wall Street finance and industry, whose insurance might pay for regular EKGs, CAT scans and weekend health retreats at tony spas. ...

But insurance plans that cover those types of things are rare. More common are the generous health benefits that many union workers receive -- plans with high employer-paid premiums, low deductibles, prescription drug coverage, vision and dental care, and low or no co-payments.

Over the past decade or so, unions in contract negotiations typically chose to forgo large wage increases in exchange for more generous medical benefits, mainly because costs were rising faster than inflation. Now, as the Senate Finance Committee works on health-care legislation, union members say they feel unfairly targeted.

Sen. Max Baucus has revised his original proposal to impose a 35 percent tax on health insurance plans that cost more than $8,000 for individuals or $21,000 for families, at the behest of critics such as Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who wanted workers in high-risk professions, to get a break. In his current proposal, they now do, The Post reports, and for everyone else, "he agreed to a request from Rockefeller and five other senators to increase the threshold defining a "high cost" plan by $750 for such individuals and $2,000 for families. Baucus also agreed that those amounts should be indexed to inflation plus 1 percent, because of objections that health-care costs have been rising at three times the level of inflation. To cover the added cost, he proposed increasing the tax to 40 percent."

Speaking of Rockefeller, emptywheel says he's reconsidering his nickname for Rockefeller as "Jello Jay." At The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn has the context:

Rockefeller gets something better than almost anybody I've seen--something he's expressed in interviews and, most recently, during this weeks hearings of the Senate Finance Committee. It's how everyday people, particularly those without a lot of money, interact with the health care system. It's easy to treat health care as an abstraction--to make it all about economic theories and Congressional Budget Office projections. (I'm surely guilty of this myself.) Rockefeller sees it through the eyes of West Virginians making $30,000 a year--people who just want to know they can pay their premiums and that, if they do, the insurance they get will protect them when they get sick.

For those people,

The government isn't going to point to an obscure provision on page 152 of your manual and deny you essential services. The government isn't going to comb through your medical records and decide that, having taken your premiums for several months, you're not eligible for coverage after all. The government isn't going to stop offering coverage next year because it can't make a profit big enough to satisfy Wall Street.

Another scare story mugged by Canadian reality

McClatchy's Kevin Hall writes that a consumer financial protection agency that's been operating in Canada since 2001 has not produced the scary scenario—unavailable credit, higher banking costs and lost jobs—that a multimillion-dollar smear campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the banking industry has conjured for similar legislation to protect U.S. consumers sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank.

Doom and gloom warnings from U.S. banks that a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency would raise borrowing costs for consumers and restrict access to credit for small businesses haven't played out in Canada, which has had a similar agency since 2001....

"I certainly have not seen anything that shows that we are vastly different from the United States in terms of access to credit," said John Rossi, who heads compliance and enforcement efforts for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada in the capital city of Ottawa.

Canada passed a tough consumer protection act in 2001 that created the agency, giving it a dual mission. It enforces the consumer portions of banking and credit laws, and it works with industry to simplify complicated financial-disclosure statements, promoting clarity and financial literacy.

Canadian bankers don't like the costs of compliance but don't say the law has created any real hardships for either themselves or consumers. But perhaps the real reason the law works is the overall regulatory climate for Canadian financial institutions, which spared it from the excesses that hammered Wall Street. Hall spoke to Sam Kay, the vice president of franchising for Centum Financial Group, Canada's largest network of independently owned mortgage-brokerage firms.

[Kay] said that much of the virtue in the Canadian system, which was virtually unscathed by the global financial crisis, came from the rules of the game, not enforcement.

Canada has an income-related mortgage system that prohibits lending to anyone who has more than 42 percent of his or her income tied up in debt, including home mortgage, loans and credit card debt.

"Our credit-based system allows for someone really not to overextend themselves," Kay said, noting that the rules also prevent flipping investment properties, which was widespread in the U.S. home price run-up that led to economic collapse.

Canadian law also prohibited interest-only loans and complex negative amortization loans, which got many homeowners in California and other high-cost states into trouble.

"We didn't go down that road, and thank God we didn't," Kay said.

Side dishes

Afghanistan indecision: The Wall Street Journal paints a picture of a torn Defense Secretary Robert Gates on what Afghanistan war strategy to support, and that is what could be slowing down President Obama's own decision-making on the issue. "Defense Secretary Robert Gates now worries that counterinsurgency might no longer be a viable approach for countering the Taliban violence roiling once-stable parts of north and west Afghanistan," writes reporter Yochi J. Dreazen, but he also opposes the approach favored by Vice President Joe Biden, which would "replace the counterinsurgency approach with a "counterterror" strategy that focuses more narrowly on using drones and small teams of Special Operations forces to kill senior al Qaeda and Taliban figures."

Happy Birthday, TARP: ProPublica looks at the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which will be a year old Saturday. "In total, $389.6 billion remains outstanding to 655 recipients ($294 billion under the TARP and $95.6 billion that’s gone to Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac]). That total doesn’t include the 39 companies that have returned a total of $71.9 billion." Meanwhile, "money continues to flow out. In September, the Treasury invested $141 million in 14 banks."

Poison pen: The co-author of ex-Gov. Sarah Palin's new book is Lynn Vincent, who Politico notes is the woman who in one of her books "describes the Democratic Party since its inception as 'pro-gangster' and the 'party of treason and subversion.' Her work for World Magazine, where she was an editor, includes a description of President Barack Obama as the 'minority survivor' of the 'black genocide' - that is, abortion."

Bill Scher is off today. He will return Monday.

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