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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reconciliation is Not an Acceptable Approach for Passing Comprehensive Health Reform

According to multiple news reports President Obama and Congresional Democrats will seek to pass health reform via the reconciliation process - bypassing the possibility of a filibuster and thereby needing only 51 votes in the Senate. Many reform advocates have been urging the use of the reconciliation process and several experts on Congress have come forward to argue that reconciliation is an appropriate process for the creation of comprehensive new programs. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities “Congress has employed reconciliation many times to make major policy shifts.”

These shifts in policy included the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (welfare reform), the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act of 2001 (tax cuts), the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (more tax cuts), and the creation of several health programs such as the health portability changes contained in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), and the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program passed as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Indeed, each of those measures were enacted via the budget reconciliation process, but contrary to what the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities as well as Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have explained, using reconciliation to enact health reform would NOT be consistent with past congressional practice.

I have argued many times in favor of enacting comprehensive health reform, including the need for a single payer system - but I cannot endorse the use of the reconciliation process and will explore prior uses of the procedure to argue that they do not, in fact, support the use of the process to enact comprehensive reform.

  • The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 amended existing tax law to deny employers the ability to deduct health insurance costs unless it allowed employees and their immediate family members to maintain their coverage if for up to 18 months if they were to lose coverage. COBRA initially passed in the Senate in November on 1985 by a 93-6 margin. A subsequent vote on the conference report reconciling differences between the House and Senate passed with 78 votes, additional changes were then made to appease the House and the final bills was passed in the Senate with no recorded vote – meaning there was no serious opposition. So COBRA passed the Senate with a filibuster proof majority, reconcilation was a procedural not a strategic choice.
  • The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 amended the Social Security Act to end the entitlement to Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replace it with the non-entitlement program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. PRWORA passed the Senate 74-24 and a subsequent conference report passed 78-21. So like COBRA, PRWORA passed via reconciliation, but not in an effort to bypass negotiation and compromise.
  • The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) represented the culmination of true bipartisan negotiations in the Senate. SCHIP, a program to provide grants to states to provide health care to children with family incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid was the work product of Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. After several early roadblocks over funding mechanisms and worries about the creation of a new social program broad agreement was eventually reach on SCHIP and it was attached to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Although the Balance Budget Act was passed via reconciliation it initially passed the Senate with Unanimous Consent and a subsequent Conference Report passed by an 85-15 margin. So SCHIP was technically created via reconciliation, but only after negotiations garnered broad support for the program, and it was merely attached to a budget bill as “last train leaving the station” means by which to enact an already bipartisan piece of legislation. Reconciliation was not used to bypass negotiations.
  • The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act of 2001 (EGTRA) amended existing tax law to utilize projected surpluses to provide broad tax reductions. Consistent with the reconciliation process the law included an expiration date of 10 years post enactment and it passed the Senate by a vote of 62-38. The subsequent Conference Report was passed by a vote of 58-33. Two Republicans, that supported the measure, were not present to cast votes – Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Pete Domenici (R-NM). So the bill enjoyed a filibuster proof majority.
  • The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 amended existing tax law – namely the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Act of 2001 – to accelerate tax reductions. This is the one example that could be pointed to as an effort by the Republican majority to circumvent the process – because they did. The GOP violated the letter and spirit of reconciliation to accelerate the bipartisan tax cuts approved in 2001 – they did not, however, create any new programs.
Although 19 bills have passed via reconciliation since the creation of the process, the five that I just cited are the ones most frequently mentioned as evidence that the reconciliation process has been used to create new programs – including new health programs - and would therefor be appropriate for enacting health care reform. The fact of the mater is that these bills show quite the opposite. The most extensive health reform, SCHIP, represented the culmination of intense bipartisan negotiations and though it was attached to the budget bill passed via the reconciliation process reconciliation was not “used” to create a new program. The President and Congressional Democrats are seeking to use reconciliation so as to avoid compromise and negotiation - this is not what has been done in the past.

The use of reconciliation to enact comprehensive health care reform would be a violation of the process. The only reason that reconciliation is being considered is because health reform, as currently written, cannot overcome a filibuster threat. In other words, reconciliation is being proposed solely for the purpose of bypassing normal rules of procedure in the Senate. This represents a clear abuse of process and one that should be rejected by all responsible. James Madison warned that men are not governed by angels nor are they angels themselves – as such we rely on auxiliary precautions to prevent the abuse of power. The division of the legislature into a House and Senate, each with a distinct connection to the electorate, and each with divergent interests and motivations, was done to prevent majoritarian tyranny – in other words, it was never expected that in America 51 votes would be enough for a majority to do whatever they wished.

O'Malley Leads Ehrlich by 6, But Cannot Break 50%

The latest poll in the Maryland governor's race shows incumbent Martin O'Malley with a 6 point lead over potential rival, and former governor, Bob Ehrlich - the race stands at 49% to 43%. The new survey, by Rasmussen Reports, shows a closer race than a poll conducted last month, and a near halving of O'Malley's lead since a poll conducted last September. Like every poll on the race it shows that O'Malley simply cannot crack 50% and polling below 50% is a bad sign for any incumbent, but the Maryland race is a bit unusual as it pits two governors against one another. Ehrlich may not be the incumbent, but he cannot seem to make it into the mid 40s. Maryland is a tough nut for any Republican candidate to crack with a 56% to 27% voter registration advantage among Democrats. Ehrlich carried the day in 2002, but came up well short in 2006. He'll need a strong GOP electoral wind come November to help carry him over the top.

Ehrlich may hold out hope that a Democratic primary challenge from George Owings weakens O'Malley as he enters the final months of the race - the 1970 race for the Senate in Maryland offers some interesting parallels. State Attorney General Doug Gansler's recent decision on same-sex marriage may also play a role in the 2010 race. The Washington Post offers a great analysis of the potential political fallout of the decision in Maryland - a state that often prefers its Democrats to be more Blue Dog and a bit less True Blue.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Proposed Cuts to Maryland Medicaid Threaten Access to Health Care

The following is an editoral comment from Professor Todd Eberly.

As Gov. Martin O’Malley proposes cutting $123 million from Medicaid for the 2011 budget in addition to the $179 million cut from fiscal 2010, a recently published study that I co-authored found that Medicaid has improved access to medical care and reduced racial and ethnic disparities among children and adolescents in Maryland.

Medicaid has proven to be crucial to the health and well being of our children. It provides health insurance for 23 million children every month in the U.S. and nearly 400,000 in Maryland. Unfortunately many states, including Maryland, have had to make cuts to the program in recent years to balance their budgets. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities at least 29 states have made cuts to their public health programs. Given that public health programs like Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) account for approximately 25% of a given state's budget (in Maryland it's 27%) it's understandable why they have become the targets of cuts. President Obama's budget proposal holds the promise of additional Medicaid funds for states, but that would be only a one time fix, and in these tight budgetary times there is no guarantee that the funds will be approved by Congress.

In Maryland, the need to close the state's $2 billion budget gap must be balanced with the simple fact that Medicaid has improved the lives of thousands of children.  At a time when access to affordable health care is falling, it would be a shame to see the state forced to make even more cuts to a program so essential to the health of our young people.

Due to federal rules that govern the Medicaid program, the state cannot cut benefits or deny eligibility, doing so would mean the loss of federal money - in Maryland we receive about $0.62 in federal funds for $0.38 in state funds that we spend on Medicaid and our SCHIP (called MCHP). So what Maryland and other states are doing instead is cut reimbursements to providers. In other words, those who provide care for Medicaid patients will be paid less. The net effect of the lower reimbursement will be decreased access to care for folks on Medicaid - including 400,000 Maryland children. Facing the prospect of reduced payments providers will react by seeking to avoid providing care. Though the Maryland cuts target hospitals many physicians may well decide to stop seeing Medicaid patients out of fear that their already low reimbursements will be cut at a future date.

My study also showed that black and Hispanic children in Maryland are more likely to live in areas with fewer providers participating in the program. The continued reductions in reimbursement to hospitals and the potential that this will discourage physicians from seeing Medicaid patients may serve to exacerbate an existing problem. This could undermine the success that Medicaid has experienced with regard to reducing disparities in health care access among children in the state.
 
The most frustrating part of all of this is that fact that cuts are not needed. There are alternative means by which the state could fill the budget shortfall. One proposal would add an additional $0.10 to the excise tax on alcholic beverages generating $200 million per year. Given the upcoming 2010 election, many members of the General Assembly have said that tax increases of any sort are off the table for the current legislative session - but the proposed cuts to hospital reimbursement rates will be paid for by Maryland taxpayers. According to a report at CenterMaryland the proposal from the state "will allow hospitals to raise the rates they can charge patients with private insurance... to generate revenue to offset the decrease in Medicaid payments." In other words, the Medicaid cuts will be offsett via higher prices charged to the privately insured. Make no mistake, this is a tax, but it's a tax implemented with no political price as no legislator will be forced to vote for it. This approach will not prevent providers from refusing to treat Medicaid patients; rather it sets the stage for the very real possibility that Medicaid patients will suffer reduced access AND the privately insured will pay higher prices for care.
 
This approach to budget savings amounts to little more than a stunning act of political cowardice that will result in reduced services to those least able to protest while shifting the potential cost to taxpayers in a way that seeks to avoid any political accountability. Marylanders deserve better from their elected leaders.

The paper, entitled “Managing the Gap: Evaluating the Impact of Medicaid Managed Care on Preventive Care Receipt by Child and Adolescent Minority Populations” examined the impact of Maryland's Medicaid program on 260,000 children as the program was expanded during the past decade. The study was published in the Black History Month edition of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

Monday, February 15, 2010

FreeStater Midterm 2010 Outlook

With the stunning news that Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh will not seek re-election in 2010 today seems like a good day to post the first in a monthly series of Midterm updates at the FreeStater Blog.  These assessments will be based on reviews of polling data as well and district or state trends as well as national dynamics. Democrats currently hold a 255 to 178 majority in the House and a 57 to 41 seat majority in the Senate (with two independents who caucus with Democrats). Republicans need 40 House seats and 10 Senate seats to reclaim control of each chamber.

Here's how things stand today -

In the House
I estimate that if the election were held today Republicans would pickup 36 seats in the following districts:
AL-2, AZ-5, AZ-8, CO-3, CO-4, FL-8, FL-24, MO-4, ID-1, IN-9, KS-3, MD-1, MI-7, MS-1, NV-3, NH-1, NH-2, NM-2, NY-13, NY-29, ND-AL, OH-1, OH-15, OH-16, OH-18, PA-7, PA-10, PA-12, SC-5, TN-8, TX-17, VA-2, VA-5, VA-9, WA-3, and WV-1

Democrats will pickup 2 seats:
IL-10 and LA-2

That would be a net gain of 34 seats for Republicans, 6 shy of the number needed to reclaim control of the chamber and the GOP may make inroads in New England in 2010. Keep an eye on CT-4 and CT-5 as well as MA-10.

In the Senate
If the election were held today the Republicans would pickup 7 seats:
AR, CO, DE, IN, NV, ND, and PA

Democrats would not win any Republican seats.

That would be a net gain of 7 Senate seats for Republicans, giving them 48 seats - 3 shy of a majority. That makes contests in CA, IL, NY, WI, and WA must wins for Democrats - if Republicans pickup 2 of the 5 they would reach 50 seats and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) could become a kingmaker.
 
So, with 8 months until the 2010 midterms Republicans would reach 212 seats in the House and 48 seats in the Senate - if the election were held today. Democrats would retain the majority, but those numbers should send shivers of fear through the party's leadership. Based on current trends, Republicans have a better than even chance of reclaiming the House. The Senate is still a long shot, but another surprise announcement like Bayh's could shift that dynamic sugnificantly. Stay tuned for the next update.

Note: This midterm update reflects the opinion of Professor Todd Eberly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Eliminating the Filibuster is a Cure Worse than the Disease

Update: Word comes today that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has now joined the effort to essentially eliminate the filibuster. So what has changed since May 23, 2005 when Durbin said “Those who would attack and destroy the institution of the filibuster are attacking the very force within the Senate that creates compromise and bipartisanship.”? All that has changed is that Democrats had only 45 seats in the Senate when Durbin defended the filibuster... today they have 59. Those who would abandon the filibuster for short term political gain need to sit down, take a deep breath, and truly consider what they are proposing.

Original Post: Two Senate Democrats have formally launched an effort to kill the filibuster. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) introduced a bill that would set a gradually lowering threshold to shut off debate on legislation, starting at 60 votes and lowering to 51 over six days.

So let’s just imagine the future – a future where the filibuster is no longer an option and only 51 votes are needed in the Senate to pass, or repeal, legislation.

In the near term, Democrats will pass Cap and Trade, Comprehensive Health Reform, and a truly progressive tax code. Then, by 2012 Republicans reclaim the House, the Senate, and the White House – a very plausible scenario, especially if the public reacts negatively to Democrats passing their agenda by changing the rules to circumnavigate debate and public scrutiny.

The new Republican majority, needing only 51 votes in the Senate to accomplish anything, shuts out the minority Democrats and repeals Cap and Trade, repeals Health Reform, passes a flat tax – and with their new freedom they privatize Social Security, next they decide to turn Medicaid into a block grant giving states the freedom to cover whomever they wish –or no one at all. Vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals? No problem, no debate. Vacancies on the Supreme Court? No problem, no debate. Drilling in ANWAR? No problem, no debate. Offshore drilling? No problem, no debate.

Are you thinking “well if they did all of that then the people would vote the Republicans out of office.” Indeed they would, and Democrats would then spend their time repealing what the Republicans had done… and then proceed to pass their partisan legislation and approve their partisan nominees… and the process would repeat.

Make no mistake, if Democrats repeal the filibuster it will set the stage for a complete breakdown of the legislative process – and yes, I reject the claims that the process is already broken. The best fix for our federal woes must take place at the state level where congressional districts are drawn. Partisan gerrymandering has created a polarized House making compromise with the Senate difficult and has served to polarize the Senate by discouraging turn-out among moderate and indepedent voters.

In Federalist 63 James Madison wrote of the Senate “that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought… ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers… how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves…”

The Senate was intended to be the place where everything slowed down, where the passions of the people, as expressed in the House, received a more discerning look. Where “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” prevailed. The filibuster does not represent what is wrong with our system of government, rather it represent what is best. The filibuster served our nation when it forced more intense scrutiny of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees and his proposal for Social Security reform and it serves us now as we debate fundamental policy changes.

Indeed, in 2005 when Senate Republicans were threatening to strip the ability of Democrats to filibuster judicial nominees it was current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who defended the filibuster saying that "stripping away these important checks and balances is about the arrogance of those in power who want to rewrite the rules so that they can get their way... This isn't about some arcane procedures of the Senate. It is about protecting liberty and our limited government... It would mean that one political party — be it Republicans today or Democrats tomorrow — gets to have all the say." Reid's words were true in 2005 and are true today.

In Federalist 73, Alexander Hamilton bragged openly about the difficult nature of policymaking in America “It may perhaps be said that the power of preventing bad laws includes that of preventing good ones; and may be used to the one purpose as well as to the other. But this objection will have little weight with those who can properly estimate the mischiefs of that inconstancy and mutability in the laws, which form the greatest blemish in the character and genius of our governments… The injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good laws, will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing a number of bad ones.”

If Democrats cannot muster 60 votes in the Senate, the answer is not to change the rules so that they only need 51 – the answer is to craft legislation that can attract a coalition of 60 Senators – whether that is 59 Democrats and 1 Republican, or 40 Democrats and 20 Republicans, or 35 Republicans and 25 Democrats. Anyone who dismisses that approach should take the time to read Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate and read how Lyndon Johnson negotiated the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – a bill that liberals viewed as toothless and hollow. But Johnson knew that he needed a bill that could pass, so he caved to Southern Democrats and accepted a weak bill – he didn’t win their vote, but he overcame their filibuster. That legislation then served as the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, and then 1964, and most importantly the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - perhaps none of which would have been possible without that crucial, and toothless, first bill.

Coalition and compromise that’s the Senate and it forces us to recognize that the true test of any bill is not how effective or comprehensive it may be – the true test is whether it can pass. If it can’t, move on, start over, make changes. Only those measures that can successfully navigate the obstacle course that is the American legislative process are worthy of becoming policy – and that’s how it was always meant to be. In Federalist 10, Madison argued that the only way to eliminate the threat of faction was to eliminate liberty. Today we face the question of how we might eliminate obstacles to legislating, the supposed solution is the elimination of the filibuster.  I'll respond in the same manner as Madison - such an option would be a "cure worse than the disease."

David Brooks Offers a Brutally Honest Assessment of Obama – Year One

New York Times columnist David Brooks, frequent critic of all that is wrong with the Republican Party, offers a brutally honest assessment of what has gone wrong in President Obama’s first year.
“There were actually two elements to the Obama campaign. First, he promised a less partisan government. Second, he promised a more activist government… It was clear voters wanted the first element, but it was never clear how many wanted the second.”

“The stimulus package, the cap-and-trade legislation and the health care bill were all blends of expert planning and political power-broking. This project would have permanently changed government’s role in national life... It was not to be… Unlike 1932 and 1965, Americans do not trust Washington to take them on a leap of faith, especially if it means more spending.”

The country has reacted harshly… Independent voters have swung against the administration… A president can’t lead a social transformation without a visceral bond with the center of the electorate and without being in step with the rhythm of the times. Obama is lacking these things. As a result, the original Obama project, the third Democratic wave, is dead.”

Brooks goes on to offer the President advice on how to restore his Presidency, but with a new agenda. Only time will tell if the President takes the advice.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

As Democrats Founder, Republicans Rise

The first paragraph of the story on the new Washington Post/ABC News poll paints the picture "Republicans have significantly narrowed the gap with Democrats on who is trusted to deal with the country's problems and have sharply reduced several of President Obama's main political advantages..."

According to the poll, on issue after issue, Republicans have wiped away the Democrats once sizeable advantage, a "year ago, Democrats held a 26-point advantage on dealing with the big issues; that lead is now six points. At the one-month mark, Obama's lead over the Republicans on dealing with the economy was 35 points; it's now five points."

The poll does offer some very telling bits "The GOP's image has improved since last year, but a majority of poll respondents still see the party in an unfavorable light (52 percent unfavorable, 44 percent favorable)."

The Republican party has gained on Obama and the Democrats, they are tied with the Democrats on the generic ballot - yet 52% of Americans view them unfavorably. What that tells me is that Americans have simply soured on the Democrats, that after one year with sizeable majorities in the House and Senate and control of the White House Americans are once again asking - can Democrats govern? It's the same question that was asked under Jimmy Carter and answered in 1980 and asked under Bill Clinton and answered in 1994. A question that is likely to be similarly answered in 2010 in a dramatic electoral repudiation.

Pundits like Jacob Weisberg at Salon may think that this is all the fault of the "childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large" but it is becoming increasing clear that the true fault may well rest with the stunning incompetence of the Democratic party leadership. Likewise, Norm Ornstein, co-author of one of the best books ever written about Congress, has tried to argue that the Democratic Congress has been "very productive" and he cites the stimulus bill passed in February of 2009 as evidence as well as passage of a "credit card holders' bill of rights" - I'm certain we'll be teaching our children about that one... He then adds to the list a host of bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives - Cap and Trade, Health Reform, Financial Regulatory Reform - but this is not the Nebraska state legilslature. We still have two houses of Congress and passing a bill in one house that has no hope of emerging from the other house is not a sign of productivity - rather it is evidence of gross incongruity.

Be clear, Republicans aren't winning based on their new and exciting ideas, they're winning because the Democrats seem so totally incapable of governing - and it's a story that is becoming all too familiar. The Democrats have been engaged in a 40 year search for their collective soul since a party civil war forced Lyndon Johnson from the ticket in 1968 (as well as national security liberals and eventually southern states from the party). Since that time the party has seen its share of registered voters fall from a lofty high of 51% to its present level of roughly 35%. Generational loyalties, residual socialization effects from the New Deal coalition, and the public backlash against Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon provided the party with a advantage that helped them maintain control of the House of Representatives until 1995. Between 1965 and 1973 Democrats suffered a net loss of 53 House seats, before winning 49 in the aftermath of the Nixon resignation. In the Senate they lost 12 seats between 1965 and 1973, before reclaiming 4 post-Watergate. The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 presented the party with its first chance at unified government in 8 years. By the end of Carter’s only term the party had lost 15 seats in the Senate and control of the chamber and 50 seats in the House.

Democrats were out of the White House until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and within 2 years of unified government Democrats lost 54 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, and control of both chambers. They would not reclaim control until 2007. With the election of Barack Obama Democrats achieved unified government again in 2009 – Democrats hold 255 House seats and 57 Senate seats (plus two Independents) – this is nearly identical to the majorities that they held when Bill Clinton assumed office in 1993. At the moment, Democrats appear headed for a 2010 very much like 1994. Charlie Cook rates 60 House races as competitive and 50 of the 60 are Democratic seats (Republicans need a net gain of 40 seats to reclaim the House) and analysts are increasingly seeing the Senate as being in play – current estimates are the Republicans would gain 7 Senate seats if the election were held now. Can losses by Democrats be attributed simply to normal party losses during midterms? Not really, historically the party in the White House experiences the worse losses during their sixth year, not the second year. In 1982 Republicans did lose seats in the House, but their Senate majority was untouched and they rallied back in the House in 1984 reclaiming more than half of the seats lost in 1982. In 2002 Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate, a feat repeated in 2004. Though Republicans have had fewer years of unified government, they have proven more adept at maintaining it. Since 1968 every instance of unified Democratic government has been met with either the loss of Congress or the loss of the White House within 4 years. Democrats need to figure out why they cannot convince the public to trust them with the reins - it may be that so long as the Democratic party remains unclear as to just what it stands for, the public will be uncertain as well and that does not inspire confidence.

In his re-nomination acceptance speech in 2004 George W. Bush said "You may not agree with me, but you know where I stand." Much the same can be said of the Republican Party - they may be the party of No, but at least they are consistent. Such a statement could not be uttered by Barack Obama, nor could it be ascribed to the Democratic Party. A public option? Maybe/ Maybe not. A discretionary spending freeze? Maybe/Maybe not. Cap and Trade? Maybe/Maybe not. Wall Street Bonuses? Maybe/Maybe not. Tax Cuts for Business? Maybe/Maybe not. Agree or disagree, voters like to know where their elected leaders stand - Democrats have about 6 months to try and figure that out for themselves... after 40 years of searching.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

George Owings III, O'Malley Challenger, Speaks to Students at St. Mary's College

The following story is posted courtesy of the Point News, the St. Mary's College of Maryland newspaper.

On Wednesday, Feb. 3, George Owings III, a candidate for the upcoming gubernatorial Democratic primary, visited the College. After a lunch with a small number of professors and students, Owings spoke to students in the 300-level political science course Maryland State and Community Politics, fielding questions about Maryland politics and the Maryland budget.

Owings previously served for 17 years in the Maryland House of Delegates representing Southern Maryland, eventually becoming the majority Whip, and he later served under Governors Robert Ehrlich (R) and Martin O’Malley (D) as Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs from 2004-2007. Before his work in state government, he served in the Marine Corps from 1964-1968, and fought in Vietnam from 1965-1968, receiving multiple awards for valor. He was also a mortgage banker, and is currently a member of the Calvert County Democratic Club.

Owings began his talk by pressing the importance of the right to vote.

“I take that right very seriously,” he said, and came prepared with voter registration forms for any student in the class not yet registered to vote.

Owings spoke about the power that the Maryland governor has over the state budget. The Maryland budget is often called the “gubernatorial budget” because the only way in which the legislature can influence the budget is to cut the funds that the governor has allotted. Owings called the power to decide the budget “the single most powerful thing” that a governor could do, excepting redistricting and reapportionment of districts.

After a quick budget overview, Owings then took questions from the class. When asked about why he wanted to become governor, Owings said that while he liked Governor O’Malley on a personal level, he was worried about some of the policies that O’Malley had enacted. Owings was especially worried about Maryland jobs, and criticized O’Malley for looking to bring in workers from outside the state. He also proposed the consolidation of government agencies and criticized the governor for taking “already inflated salaries…and increas[ing] them by some $6,000.” He positioned himself as a more conservative option within the Democratic party, and his Web site advocates fiscal responsibility and a return to center-right positions.

Still, Owings said, “I am a Democrat.”

“The Democratic tent is so big, all are welcome underneath,” he said. He distinguished himself from Republicans by adding, “The Republican party was always for big business. I still represent the working people.”

Owings also provided his positions on a variety of issues when asked by the students.

For example, Owings said that he is a supporter of oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay, but he disliked the way in which the restoration would be implemented under the current administration. He said, “Before you do it, shouldn’t you let the watermen know?…They read it in the paper.”

When it came to Owings’ economic solutions for the state of Maryland, he said that raising taxes and cutting spending were not either-or propositions.

“You cannot just cut a budget and make things work,” Owings said. “You have to have a combination of both…You have to raise taxes.” Maryland law requires that the state balance its budget every year; Owings said that as a lawmaker, “you might not like it, but if [the budget]’s balanced, you vote for it.”

Owings also said that he has “always been a supporter of slots,” and saw firsthand the revenue that they could generate when he lived in North Beach in Calvert County. He also said that while he supported slots, common sense had to be used in their placement. Slots in the inner harbor in Baltimore would be a “terrible idea,” but in areas like Laurel, and Pimlico with its racetrack, slots could bring in revenue and also help the horse-racing industry.

When asked about social issues, Owings expressed conservative points of view. Regarding same-sex marriage, he said, “A marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the law in this state,” however, he is a supporter of domestic partnerships, both for people like his brother, who needs medical help that domestic partnerships can allow a healthy partner to provide, but also for loving same-sex couples looking for the closest alternative to marriage.

On abortion, Owings said that he has “come down on the pro-life side” on budget issues regarding abortion funding. Although he supports Roe v. Wade as law, he said, “Personally, I’m a pro-life believer.”

On education, Owings said that “you are entitled in this state and in this country to a free education,” referring to levels K-12, and pointed to the “historic levels” of K-12 funding by the state of Maryland under Governors Glendening and Ehrlich. He said that he “supported charter schools under Glendening, under Ehrlich.” He also supports community colleges, having attended Prince George Community College. In addition, he believes that the No Child Left Behind Act has failed, saying that “When you teach to a test, you’re not teaching basics.”

Political science professor and Director of Public Policy Studies Todd Eberly, who teaches the Maryland State and Community Politics Class, was pleased with the way the talk went.

“He was enthusiastic and engaged and willing to take any question,” Eberly said. “And he was willing to express his opinions, not gloss over them like many who seek public office.”

Eberly added that the fact that Owings is a “Blue Dog Democrat” added to the experience for students.

“Conservative Democrats were crucial to the Democratic party becoming the majority party during the New Deal up through the Johnson administration,” Eberly said. “If the Democratic party wants to maintain its control of Congress, the White House, and the majority of our State Houses, it needs to find a way to balance the demands of liberal, moderate, and even conservative voices within its coalition.”

Eberly added that Governor Martin O’Malley was also invited to speak at the College, but his office declined the invitation but will be sending Maryland Secretary of State John McDonough in O’Malley’s place later in the semester.

Chris Rodkey, a senior in the class, described Owings as “a fiery candidate who definitely has the potential to stir things up in the Democratic primary.”

“He energized me to follow the upcoming campaign and make an informed decision when I vote,” he added.

The Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010. More information about George Owings III can be found on his Web site, http://www.owingsforgovernor.org/index.php .

By Lara Southgate

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Larry Sabato Predicts that Ehrlich would Defeat O'Malley in Maryland... and Other 2010 News

The latest crystal ball prediction from Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics contains some fear inducing predictions for Democrats.  "...if the election were held today... Republicans would pick up nine governorships currently held by Democrats, but lose three they currently occupy. Therefore, the GOP would have a net gain of six governorships, plus opportunities to play offense in three more toss-up races in states where Democrats now reign." Sabato further predicts the GOP will gain 7 Senate seats and 27 House seats.

In Maryland, Sabato predicts that Robert Ehrlich would defeat Governor Martin O'Malley and he rates the race as a likely GOP win.

I have argued for weeks here, here, and here that Governor O'Malley faced a serious threat from Ehrlich - it's nice to see Sabato following my lead, and I'm willing to back up my analysis with data.

I feel obliged to mention as well that I've been discussing the potential for significant Republican gains in the House and Senate for several weeks.  I think that Sabato is underestimating Republican gains in the House and Senate. Independent voters are becoming an ever more important factor on Election Day, and this introduces significant unpredictability into our elections. From one election to the next roughly 90% of Democrats and 90% of Republicans cast a vote loyal to their party, but fully 1/3 of Independents shift their support between the two parties. When Independents represented a smaller slice of the electorate this was not such a issue. Independents now comprise fully 1/3 of the American electorate - rivaling Republicans and Democrats in voter share. A shift of 1/3 of 1/3 of the electorate - or roughly 11% - can have a significant impact on election outcomes.  Independents broke heavily for Democrats in 2006 and 2008 - delivering them the Congress and White House. But in VA, NJ, Massachusetts and nationally Independents have turned on the Democrats. Evidence of this shifting support can be seen in the Republicans current 3 point lead in the generic Congressional ballot - this is significant given that in the two most recent election cycles when Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate - 1994 and 2002 - the generic ballot in November of each election year had Republicans and Democrats either tied (at 46% in 1994) or Republicans trailing the Democrats (by 5% in 2002) - yet Republican performed better come election day. The simple reason being that Republican voters are more likely to turn-out. So Democrats need a significant lead to offset turn-out. If Republicans enter November with a lead in the Generic ballot then Democrats can say goodbye to their House majority and expect no better than a 1 seat majority in the Senate.

And 2010 matters because states will engage in redistricting after the 2010 census - gaining the governorships in states like Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan would give Republicans an advantage in redrawing Congressional districts that could then protect a potential GOP majority for a decade.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

George Owings III to Speak to Students at St. Mary's College on Feburary 3rd

George Owings III the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under Robert Ehrlich and current challenger to Martin O'Malley for the Democratic nomination for governor will speak to students at St. Mary's College of Maryland on Wednesday February 3rd. Secretary Owings will speak to students studying State and Local Politics in Maryland. The class meets at 2:40 PM in Kent Hall and will be open to the press.

Secretary Owings was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1988 to 2004 and held the position of Majority Whip from 1994-2004 after serving as Deputy Majority Whip from 1992-94.

Owings announced in early January that he would challenge O'Malley for the Democratic nomination. 

Contact Professor Todd Eberly with questions - teeberly@smcm.edu or 240-895-4391.

Monday, February 1, 2010

President Obama's Budget Would Provide Millions for Maryland

President Obama is receiving heated criticism over his proposed $3.83 trillion budget for fiscal year 2011. Critics have seized on the fact that the budget would add $5.08 trillion in deficits over the next five years an amount that is $1.32 trillion, or 35%, more than the White House predicted just 12 months ago. Lost in the discussion of the budget proposal, however, is the inclusion of some much needed relief for states and an especially important bit of help for Maryland. The President’s budget includes nearly $25 billion in supplemental Medicaid funding for states via a temporary boost to the share of program costs paid by the federal government. The so-called Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, or FMAPs, determine the share of Medicaid costs paid by Washington and all states receive at least a 50% match on dollars spent. Although Medicaid is jointly funded by states and the federal government it is an expensive program and in many states represents the largest slice of the budget pie – averaging about 22% of a typical state’s budget. Medicaid participation is very responsive to changes in the economy and the recent economic downturn has caused state Medicaid enrollment to swell. A study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid determined that each 1 percentage point increase in the national unemployment rate translates into one million additional Medicaid participants and state revenue declines of 3 to 4%. It was estimated that nearly 5 million Americans had enrolled in Medicaid since the start of the recession.

To help states defray the cost of this increased demand for Medicaid, Congress included a 6.2% increase in the FMAP as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act past early last year. But that assistance expires on 12/31/2010. Few states expect to experience an economic recovery sufficient to offset the loss of those supplemental funds by then. The House of Representatives had included supplemental Medicaid funding in its version of health reform and more recently included the 6.2% increase in the FMAP in a jobs bill passed in December. The House version of health reform is considered to be dead in light of the special election in Massachusetts that ended the Democrat’s supermajority in the Senate, and the Senate is yet to move on the jobs bill. Many states, Maryland included, were already counting on the receipt of the additional Medicaid funds to avoid making painful cuts in their fiscal 2011 budgets. In an effort to close a nearky $2 billion hole, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley assumed the receipt of nearly $400 million in supplemental Medicaid funds in the budget that he submitted to the General Assembly on January 20th. The Massachusetts election seemed to put those funds in doubt and state Republican leaders criticized the inclusion of the funds in the governor's budget. But the Presidents budget proposal appears to vindicate O’Malley’s choice to count on the funds. If approved, the 6.2% increase would mean several hundred million additional Medicaid dollars for Maryland in fiscal 2011.