Rob Portman

^ thank goodness for Ohio politicians : Senator Rob Portman, like Governor John Kasich, opposes the Senate health care bill, whose Medicaid cuts would seriously impact a state ravaged by the nation’s worst opioid epidemic

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Social media has made the above phrase a vital part of conversation vocabulary. Written usually as “SMDH,” it captures the absurdity of what is going on in Congress right now, the attempt by many Republican Senators to 3nqact a bill that purports to be about health care but isn’t, really, and that is offered as an improvement when instead it’s, well, an absurdity.

What can one say about a “health care bill” that only about 17 percent of the voters support; that — according to the Congressional Budget Office — would strip health insurance from about 22,000,000 of us; that would balloon premiums for many of the rest of us; and that gives tax relief to those who don’t need it ? What in tarnation is going on here ?

Governor Baker, who firmly opposes said bill, says that if enacted it would cost Massachusetts about $ 8 billion over the next ten years, as we struggle to revise our own state health care system to compensate for loss of Medicaid funding. No surprise that every member of our state’s Congressional delegation opposes the bill along with Baker. But what of Senators and Congress-people from other states ? Why does this bill have almost (but not quite, thank goodness)  enough support to be enacted ?

The Senate bill proposes to shrink Medicaid funding by about $ 721 billion over 10 years. Why ? To what end ? Medicaid is the federally funded, state-administered health care insurance system that covers about 40 percent of America’s children and almost all adults of low income. Is there some reason why these should not have the taxpayer support necessary to assure them the same health care taken for granted by we who can afford the premiums ? Without health insurance, people cannot receive health care except in emergency rooms — the full cost of which is paid by tax dollars; so, why must people who can’t afford insurance have no access to care except in emergencies ? Doctors will not see an uninsured person unless she can afford fee for service — the most expensive option by far. Yet in the Senate bill, fee for service is the preferred option, as it renders the cost of insurance so high as to equal, or surpass, that of fee for service.

The arguments I have heard from those Senators who actually like the bill sound like Charles Dickens’s London, 1850 : “it’s time to restore personal responsibility to the health care market,” say some. Or, “those who need Medicaid can always get jobs.” Others decry taxpayers having to pay for women’s reproductive health — as being a woman is somehow wrong. What the blazes are these Senators thinking ? Presumably they want to be re-elected ? How can they be re-elected if they advocate a health care bill this damaging to so many voters ? Their actions contradict every law of election, and yet they seem oblivious to the absurdity of it all.

For now, the Senate bill lacks votes to pass it. Yet the House, which began with the same impasse, fairly soon thereafter passed an even more damaging bill. The Senate probably won’t follow suit. It’s a lot harder for a Senator to hide than for a Congress-person. And if the Senate bill fails, and the House bill cannot gain even a hearing in the Senate, the Congress will have wasted almost six months spinning fake yarn. The voters se the absurdity of it all and seem poised — maybe — to overturn this Congress at the mid-term elections. But why are we at this juncture at all ? Can we please elect a Congress that will enact legislation that the voters actually want ? Here I think not only of health care reform (maybe single payer — expanding Medicare and Medicaid to cover everyone — or perhaps improvements to the current health care system, but also of these : (1) immigration reform, including some form, of path to citizenship for the millions who live here without sanction; ( 2 ) universal background checks for guns and ammunition purchases, supported by more than 90 percent of voters; ( 3 ) a revised Voting Rights Act that restores Federal monitoring of voting in jurisdictions where denial of vote rights is a current situation;  ( 4 ) some increase to the Federal minimum wage, which remains locked at $ 7.25; and ( 5 ) a major Infrastructure bill.

None of my list of six reforms is very controversial. All have overwhelming public support., Why can’t a Congress elected by the people who support these reforms enact them ? I can think of several answers to my question — every one of them indefensible and absurd.

Which is why I am SMDH, shaking my damn head.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



^ Thus spoke John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, last night, as he tore into the Senate’s proposed health care bill, one that would make health care pretty much unaffordable for people of low income.

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Kasich is right, of course. Low income people have less influence on our politics right now than they have had in at least 100 years, maybe longer. But why ? In a system of universal suffrage, and accounting even for vote suppression efforts, low income people should carry great numerical weight — more weight as low income situations increase. Why isn’t this happening ?

The obvious first answer is money. The enormous cost of campaigns today has forced candidates to spend much of their time talking to donors. BIG money donors. These fully understand the leverage they possess over candida5tes and can hardly be blamed for pressing that leverage. Nor is there any easy answer to the monstrosity of money campaigning. The Citizens United case, and its successors, make clear that money donations are protected political speech no matter how huge. A Constitutional Amendment seems most unlikely. The power of big money will continue.

There is, however, a not so obvious, second answer that cannot be so readily excused: campaigns more and more have concentrated their people efforts on those who always vote — called “super voters” — to the exclusion of every other voter, much less those who aren’t registered at all. The election of Mr. Trump was generated at least in part by voters whop have — correctly — found themselves left out. Actually, their anger is probably a preferable response to the much more widespread indifference that has overtaken so many low income voters.

One sees it all the time on the campaign trail. I fully believe in campaigning to all the voters, but at the doors of many low income, or low frequency voters — the overlap is large — I find voters who clearly don’t see candidates knocking on their door and express a kind of stupefied surprise before they are able to actually say anything; nor do these voters expect much, other than gratefulness that we actually came to their door. Will they vote ? Will our visit move them to do so ? the chances are not great, but if candidates do not campaign to these voters, the chance that they will vote is close to nil. Which is why candidates, not blessed with unlimited time, are reluctant to campaign to them.

I can’t blame candidates for campaigning to the “super voters” first; and these are almost always people connected to “the system,” or elderly and thus trained to vote back in the day when it was thought an obligation. Yet to forego campaigning to everyone else almost assures that everyone else won’t care about an election.

What individual candidates have come to do, so have entire political parties. Lists of “super voters” are kept, and can be bought as a “voterfile.” Donor lists are kept and distributed to candidates. Big money meets big money at high-ticket fund raisers disseminated through social media. Meanwhile, low income voters, disinterested, either have no such network or don’t think it matters much to try and build one: for what purpose, anyway ? Worse, political party committees need big money just as much as candidates do — maybe more. They have hundreds of employees who must be paid, structures to be funded, events and conventions, media campaigns, lobbying, opposition research…

Meanwhile, what do low income people contribute ? Certainly not tax revenue; indeed, if you are low income, you’re likely eligible for an earned income tax credit, or for Medicaid, or for any other benefit that someone else must pay for. Low income people thus have almost no leverage. And yet. And yet low income people are our neighbors and, in many cases, our relatives, parents, grandparents, friends. Their needs are no less than our needs, and if we care about our fellows for who they are, not merely for how much they earn, then we as a society cannot say no. Yet many of us do. Which means that low income people should use the one leverage they do have : large numbers of votes.

I’m not holding my breath.

To the above I must, sadly, add a third reason: low income people include a large segment of Americans of color, or of recent immigrant status. Some voters are afraid of these, or largely ignorant about them, or uncomfortable campaigning to them. Voters of color have been the object of vote suppression legislation; immigrant voters are new to the system and not fully connected to its local nuances. Immigrants, too, require registration efforts; and registering voters is a time consuming, labor intensive, educational endeavor that few politicians have any ability to undertake. Churches have stepped up; but as it takes time for newly registered voters to acquire the custom of actually voting — of remembering when voting day comes, knowing where one’s polling place is, and going through the check in and check out procedures — many do not do it unless pushed, and who will do the pushing ? My experience is that it can take newly registered voters (not only immigrants, but also voters generally who are new to the city they register in) at least a decade of living in a city to become accustomed to voting in its local elections.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




MBTA com

^ bread and butter success : the new MBTA website

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Today a friend of mine posted, on facebook , a kudo to the MBTA’s new website. “It’s so much easier to navigate,” he wrote. Just another little improvement, by a Governor who has become the most popular politician in the state by getting little reforms done.

The day prior, Governor Baker announced a reform not quite so little : he will continue the $ 500 million, priority investment in the life sciences industry first established by Governor Patrick, but where Patrick”s funding focused on structures, Baker’s funds will give priority to jobs : as he noted, it isn’t much good to prioritize our state’s life sciences industry if school graduates aren’t prepared for the jobs the industry needs filled.

Assuring the transition of young people from student to employee certainly counts among our state’s most serious policy challenges. Baker is hardly the only politician talking about it. It’s figured prominently in his campaign agenda since the 2014 election season began, and many politicians, Mayors especially, have taken up the call. The matter is not a slam dunk. Preparing students for actual employment raises all sorts of school issues, from “the achievement gap” to charter school availability to MCAS testing and the length of a school day. It also touches one of education politics’s third rails : how much involvement in education should corporations have ? Talk of corporate involvement in education leads quickly to the “privatization” that public school advocates dislike.

Thus the careful steps that Baker takes even where large sums of money are allocated. It is easier to reform when the reform being pushed is small or cautiously nudged.

All of the above leads me to the actual subject of this column : that what makes Massachusetts government work is that almost everybody misunderstands how it works and why it works, and why what people do think the political system is would be disastrous to reform if it were actually implemented.

Hardly any of the activists who make up Massachusetts’s political community seems to realize that our system works because the two parties aren’t really political parties, and that, that being the case, ideologues have scant way to force their platforms upon us. One hears, these days, “progressives” calling for the Democratic party to adhere to a platform, and for those who don’t adhere to it be challenged, even defeated. Yet when one talks to the voters at large, there is very little urge for the initiatives “progressives” wish to secure. The situation for Massachusetts Republicans is similar, yet opposite as well. Because there are very few Republicans — only eleven percent of our voters — the ideologues command much more power within the party than progressives do within Democratic circles; but the ideologies demanded by Republican ideologues are even more unpopular among the voters at large than Democratic ideologies: so that even when Republican ideologues are able to control their party’s agenda, their agenda has zero chance of ever being enacted.

As a result of these two asymmetrical impasses, Massachusetts is actually governed by low-intensity pragmatists who view systemic change skeptically, thus assuring that when they do enact legislative reforms, they’re bread and butter stuff, not champagne and ice cream. Progressives and so-called “conservatives” see this and express great frustration at it — they want noise and drama and popular uprisings — yet they do not seem to grasp why the system frustrates them rather than embrace them. The voters, too. Our voters seem to think that we have a Democratic party government, and a Republican Governor, where what we actually have is a legislature that moves slowly, usually in consensus, and a Governor who plays his own variation of the legislative tune; a Governor more popular with Democratic voters than with Republican ones, in tandem with a “Democratic” legsialty7ure that activist Democrats do not like. What’s in a name ? With apologies to Shaespeare, in this case, what’s in the names people politically use is not at all what they mean when they name it.

And our state is much the better for it

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere



^ Governor Baker : “in order to get things done, you have to listen to opinions other than your own.”

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At a recent East Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Governor Baker gave the keynote speech. First, he spoke about what his administration has done, and is still doing, to reform Massachusetts government. Then came the words that most impressed upon me : “if you want to get things done, you have to listen to opinions other than your own.”

Government — and politics generally — cannot work if people of differing opinions block each other out. As we all know, blocking has been all too common these past several years. People shout at each other; everybody is convinced that he is right and that the world will come to an end if those who are wrong win out. Worse, there exists an entire world of media enterprises which profit from shouting at others and tuning them out. These businesses — my cousin Chris calls them “hate profiteers” — amass fans, far too many fans, who feel good ranting bile at those who differ from them.

Even before the tragic shooting, barely a week ago, of a Congressman and staffers at a Congressional baseball practice, many political leaders had begun to change the message — to listen to those with opinions different from theirs. Senator Elizabeth Warren took the lead getting a confirmation vote for her former opponent Scott Brown, nominated to be ambassador to New Zealand, and voting yes to confirm him; and Scott Brown publicly thanked her for doing so. And yes, this is Massachusetts; it’s how we do.

We do this, not because we’re better than other Americans, but because the agents of demonization don’t control of our politics. Most of the inflammatory  media aren’t programmed on Massachusetts radio, and almost no demonization money flows through super PACs into Massachusetts campaigns. Why would it ? Something like eighty percent of our voters agree on the most inflammatory issues, and we haven’t any kind of competitive two-party politics in place to change that. Our Democratic party isn’t really a party in the usual sense — it’s simply everybody who wants to win elections — and our Republican party, at barely eleven percent of our voters, is far too small to contest said “Democratic” monopoly. The one thing that our Republican party does do — elect a Governor — is done in a non-partisan manner, electing a sort of referee who negotiates reforms with various segments of the “Democrats” who control super majorities in our legislature. This system, unique in American politics, as worked well for 27 years now, since the election if Bill Weld as Governor in 1990.

This system was fairly easy to operate in the years before mutual demonization became the political norm. Much less simple today, as Massachusetts pursues consensus governance while all around us rancor and partisanship rule. Nor is Baker’s observation true only of him. His method, of respecting and learning from opinions other than his own would be dead on arrival if it were not also an operating principle for the rest of our elected leaders. Almost all of the reforms that Baker has initiated have won unanimous, or almost unanimous, support vin the legislature. Three state budgets with no new taxes and no new fees all were adopted unanimously : “progressives” voted for them, as did right wing Republicans.

Divisive issues remain, and there are political forces at work bringing them forward. I think of the two-tier tax initiative that will appear on the 2018 ballot. Another such issue is the “sanctuary state” movement seeking to place Massachusetts in opposition to President Trump’s aggressive immigration police. Many advocates involved in these campaigns use them to force Governor Baker out of the consensus groove that has made him the state’s most popular politician; yet I doubt they will succeed. Baker knows that the two-tier tax question has broad support, and that his best response is to make sure that the money it seeks for education and transportation actually get allocated to these, and not to some other legislative priority. He also knows that the voters will support the tax question only for these purposes, and that those who are using the two tier tax idea to put him on the defensive misjudge voter sentiment.

As for the “safe communities” issue, Baker has never wavered from his middle position: that it’s a question not for the state as a whole but for each of our 351 towns and cities to decide; and while I favor the statewide view, I concede Baker’s point. Sanctuary has been a very divisive issue in some of our communities, and putting it to the entire state, by some sort of legislation, would needlessly fracture the state’s political peace. It’s not enough just to listen to opinion s other than one’s own, or to take them into account; there has to be a willingness to take this road, and the willingness has to come of its own accord, and not by an imposed political move. I think the Governor’s saying so, in a major speech, and demonstrating its successes in state reform, can have the persuasive power that will move our state in the consensus direction that other states — and the nation — are beginning to realize works better than angry accusation and fearful condemnation.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere