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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Progressives (and Obama) are Doing Better Than We Think -- and We Won't Know What We've Got 'Til It's Gone

By Nathan Newman - November 30, 2009, 9:01AM

Polls show the Democratic base is unmotivated to turnout in 2010-- and it's no wonder given all the rhetoric that Obama hasn't done much with his 2008 victory. Those attacks from the rightwing are understandable from a partisan position, but many progressives seem to oddly be aping similar rhetoric-- wallowing in glass half-empty complaints of what Obama and Congress haven't delivered while failing to actually educate the public on the successes they have. We should be able to demand more while publicly praising what we do achieve -- basic political walking and chewing gum at the same time -- but a lot of progressives seem not to have mastered the skill.

Maybe it helps that I had such low expectations of Obama's administration to begin with-- but then I thought significant federal reforms would fail due to the filibuster. So the progress actually made is a pleasant surprise. And those successes are large and profound. This post will summarize those gains, and even in summary form will be quite long, reflecting the incredible victories involved. Yes, we all wish for more, but the best way to get there is to educate the public -- and especially the progressive base -- about what we got in the last year and how replacing moderates and conservatives with more real progressives could deliver even more in the future.

Quick Summary of 2009 Progressive Victories (more explanation below)

•Three major health bills (SCHIP, tobacco regulation, and stimulus funds for Medicaid, COBRA subsidies, health information technology and the National Institutes of Health) enacted even before comprehensive reform
•Stimulus contained myriad other individual policy victories, not only preventing a far worse depression but also:
◦Delivered key new funds for education
◦Expanded state energy conservation programs and new transit programs
◦Added new smart grid investments
◦Funded high-speed Internet broadband programs
◦Extended unemployment insurance for up to 99 weeks for the unemployed and modernizing state UI programs to cover more of the unemployed
◦Made large new investments in the safety net, from food stamps (SNAP) to affordable housing to child care
•Clean cars victory to take gas mileage requirements to 35mpg
•Protection of 2 million acres of land against oil and gas drilling and other development
•Executive orders protecting labor rights, from project labor agreements to protecting rights of contractor employees on federal jobs
•Stopping pay discrimination through Lilly Ledbetter and Equal Pay laws
•Making it easier for airline and railway workers to unionize, while appointing NLRB and other labor officials who will strengthen freedom to form unions
•Reversing Bush ban on funding overseas family planning clinics
•Passing hate crimes protections for gays and lesbians
•Protecting stem cell research research
•Strengthening state authority and restricting federal preemption to protect state consumer, environmental and labor laws
•Financial reforms to protect homeowners and credit card holders
•Bailing out the auto industry and protecting unionized retirees and workers

Detailed-- Let's start with health care. Even if the public option doesn't make it, we are on the verge of passing a federal reform bill that, at minimum, is projected to add health coverage for 31 million Americans in the next decade, devoting $347 billion to add 15 million people to Medicaid and CHIP programs and $447 billion to subsidize coverage for other working and middle class families.

And remember, if passed, this will be the fourth major health care bill passed in Obama's first year in office.

•The first was the passage of the Children's Health Insurance Bill , which itself will expand coverage for an additional 4 million uninsured children by 2013 on top of continuing coverage for 7 million currently enrolled in the program. And for the first time, it allowed states to cover many documented immigrant children who previously were not eligible
•And Congress passed its bill to give the government the power to regulate tobacco, something progressives had been seeking since the early 1990s.
•And then there was the stimulus money for health care, which dedicated more than $145 billion to investments and reform of health care systems,including
◦$87 billion to states in just the next couple of years to maintain Medicaid programs
◦$25 billion to help laid-off workers afford their previous employer's health care via COBRA
◦$19 billion for Health Information Technology (HIT) deployment and
◦$10 billion in additional funds for the National Institute of Health.
Really, you should count the COBRA subsidies, HIT expansion and NIH funding as three additional health care bills passed, since each in a normal year would have been considered a profound and singular legislative achievements.

The Stimulus Plan as Multiple Progressive Achievements: But that's was one problem with the stimulus bill-- it was so large that it's treated as one thing, instead of a whole array of legislative achievements pulled together to also help save the economy from depression and collapse. So let's step back and pull the recovery plan apart into it's multiple progressive achievements. The list of individual programs may seem long, but when you are talking about billions of dollars for each one handed out over a relatively short period, they are worth remembering for their individual progressive achievement and for the billions committed, especially for many programs starved for funds for decades. I'll summarize some of these below, but you can see more details in Progressive States' Implementing the Recovery Plan.

•Stimulus Saving the Economy: Before going into all the individual programs, let's talk about the overall achievement of the recovery plan in stabilizing the economy. Most progressives will agree it should have been bigger, but key economists agree it was critical to staving off an economic collapse; as Paul Krugman wrote, without the stimulus plan, "we would have had a full Great Depression experience...Deficits, in other words, saved the world." Including not only direct jobs created but the ripples of jobs created through indirect stimulus, the Economic Policy Institute confirms the stimulus' was responsible for creating or saving from 1.1 to 1.5 million jobs since its passage. A large part of this effect was in preventing catastrophic layoffs of teachers, nurses and other state and local employees by offsetting revenue losses at the state and local level. While there seems to be some kind of sexist media meme that only highway jobs, presumably manned by manly men, count as "real jobs", the stimulus however has kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and nurses and child care workers on the job-- one of the most important anti-recession government employment programs of the last half-century.
•Education Funding: This emphasizes that along with being a major health care bill, the stimulus was one of the largest federal education bills in history. It devoted $139.24 billion to education funding over a couple of years, including:
◦State Fiscal Stabilization Fund of $53.6 billion to help state and local governments avert budget cuts
◦$39.5 billion in educational block grants allocated by student and general population measures
◦$5 billion for incentive grants and other purposes.
◦$24.8 billion for School Construction Bonds
◦$11.3 billion for special education
◦$10 billion for Local Educational Agencies
◦$3 billion for School Improvement Grants.
◦Higher education funding of approximately $30 billion was distributed directly to students and their families, but an estimated $15 billion for scientific research flowed partly to universities.

•Clean Energy and Transportation Investments: Estimates on potential green energy investments in the recovery package, including upgrading our transportation infrastructure, range from $70.6 billion to $113.5 billion depending on what is included, but the bottom-line is that this package is the largest investment in energy independence in American history. These included:
◦Over $14 billion for various State Energy Conservation Programs, including $5 billion for the chronically underfunded Weatherization Assistance Program to help low-income families reduce their energy costs by weatherizing their homes.
◦$11 billion for smart grid technology aimed at improving the energy efficiency of electrical grids around the country, a key to making alternative energy production and distribution viable.
◦The recovery plan was also a key "down payment on a new transportation vision," in the words of the coalition Transportation for America, including $27.5 billion allocated to the traditional highway program, $8.4 billion for public transportation, $9.3 billion for intercity and high-speed passenger rail, and $825 million for projects that will make our streets safer for walking and biking. Significantly, the law included unprecedented flexibility in using "highway" funds on ports, transit, passenger and freight rail, or other projects.

•Broadband Investments: The recovery plan allocated $7.2 billion to promote high-speed Internet programs for rural, unserved and under-served areas and for initiatives that expand public community centers' capacity and for the development of a national broadband map.

•Unemployment Insurance Extension and Reform: While the present recession is bad, one reason many unemployed workers and their families are better off than in past recessions is that help for the unemployed has been far more extensive due to the stimulus plan.
◦First, the stimulus plan included extended federal weeks of help for the unemployed (help which was recently further extended with a new law) to up to 99 weeks of help in the worst hit states -- compared to just 26 weeks normally available before the recession-based reforms and no more than 52 weeks in recessions over the last three decades.
◦While benefits are still too meager by international standards, the stimulus, over 17.9 million Americans will receive a $25/week increase in their UI benefits.
◦As importantly, $7 billion in incentive money was provided to states to modernize their unemployment insurance systems to including low-income workers, part-time workers and workers who had to leave jobs for compelling family reasons-- workers previously completely excluded from UI help in most states. The result has been what the National Employment Law Project calls an "unprecedented wave of state reforms" to expand access to state unemployment help.
◦Add in the 65% COBRA health care subsidies mentioned above and progressives have won broader and deeper relief for the unemployed than in any past recession.

•Supporting the Safety Net: And for those already suffering in poverty -- or plunged into it because of the recession -- the stimulus bill extended additional help as well:
◦Nutrition Programs: Over $20 billion was added to the Food Stamps program (now called SNAP), WIC and other food programs, and the law lifted restrictions on how long unemployed individuals without children can receive SNAP benefits.
◦Child Care: Over $4 billion was added for child care block grants, Head Start and Early Head Start programs.
◦TANF: $5 billion was added to basic TANF welfare programs. While not repealing the 1996 welfare law, provisions did roll back rigid rules that would have denied funds to states that couldn't find work for rapidly expanding caseloads of the poor.
◦Affordable Housing Aid: Added $13.5 billion in funding for a range of affordable housing and homeless prevention programs.

•Expansion of science investments-- Notably, between the stimulus and other budget spending, no less than the Wall Street Journal calls Obama's investments in science, especially green technology, a "once-in-a-generation shift in U.S. science," reinvigorating 17 giant U.S.-funded research facilities, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, as well as university research facilities .
So those are many of the myriad program gains from the recovery plan (there are more whose dollar amounts were less but who mattered greatly to those effected). But there have also been additional policy gains outside the stimulus on the environment, labor rights, gay and abortion rights, and financial reforms.

Environmental Victories: Two notable victories promise to have long-lasting legacies for the nation, even before climate change legislation comes to a vote in the Senate:

•Victory on clean cars mileage rules-- For literally decades, automakers blocked higher federal gas mileage rules and the Bush administration blocked state laws seeking to establish higher standards in their states. Obama engineered a new rule that by model year 2016, the average mandated fleet fuel efficiency standard will be 35.5 miles per gallon. Add in the$2 billion in stimulus cash for advanced batteries systems and the nation should see significant fuel savings in the near future.
•Landmark U.S. conservation bill - Signing a package of more than 160 bills, Obama designating roughly 2 million acres -- parks, rivers, streams, desert, forest and trails -- in nine states as new wilderness and render them off limits to oil and gas drilling and other development.
Labor Rights: On labor rights, we haven't gotten the Employee Free Choice Act, but key Bush executive orders have been reversed, new personnel are being added to the National Labor Relations Board, and Congress has passed key new laws. These include

•Executive orders to allow use of project labor agreements on federal projects, requirements not to displace qualified (often unionized) workers when changing contractors, and require all federal contractors to notify their workers of their rights to form a union.
•Passage of the Lilly Leadbetter Law and Equal-Pay Legislation to protect workers from pay discrimination.
•The Federal Mediation Board has moved to make it far easier for rail and airline workers to form unions.
•Obama's appointees at the Labor Department and NLRB are some of the strongest labor advocates possible, most of them drawn from pro-labor organizations.
Social Issues: Progressive mades a number of advances on hot button "culture war" issues this year:

•Family Planning: Obama reversed George W. Bush's funding cutoff to overseas family planning organizations -- probably saving millions of lives.
•Hate Crimes: Congress passed a lawexpanding hate crimes protection to gays and lesbians.
•Stem cells: Obama signed an executive order removing research barriers.
Strengthening Authority of States to Build on Federal Reforms: For years, states have increasingly seen their hands tied by a federal government declaring that preemption voids state consumer, environmental and labor rights laws. The Bush administration in particular used its regulatory authority aggressively to block state law after state law. In May, the White House emphasized its new commitment to respecting state regulatory rules by issuing a broad Memorandum on Preemption to all heads of executive departments and agencies, ordering them to avoid the preemption language routinely included in Bush-era regulatory preamble statements or in codified regulations unless there is "full consideration of the legitimate prerogatives of the States and with a sufficient legal basis for preemption."

The administration's affirmation of state "clean car" authority, protection of higher state consumer health care protections, and ending Bush's war on medical marijuana in the states have all been part of this movement towards of collaborative federalism that will strengthen progressive power in the states for years into the future.

Financial Reforms: Even as more comprehensive financial reforms continue to move forward in the House, a couple of significant financial consumer reforms were passed earlier this year: •Helping Families Save Their Homes Act and the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act -these pieces of legislation make it easier for homeowners to access financial help, established protections for renters living in foreclosed homes, and established the right of a homeowner to know who owns their mortgage, while giving the Department of Justice the ability to prosecute at virtually every step of the process from predatory lending on Main Street to the manipulation on Wall Street.
•Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act (or Credit CARD Act) of 2009- limits when credit card interest rates can be increased on existing balances and allows consumers whose interest rates have been increased to reduce their annual percentage rates (APRs) to previous levels if they've been good and paid their bills on time for six months. It also limits when interest rates can be increased, bans universal default and double-cycle billing, and restricts credit cards for minors.

Auto Bailout- Saving a core industry of our economy and as many of its attendant jobs as we can should have been a no-brainer, especially as many construction and real estate jobs are inevitably disappearing forever. And the Obama rescue was done in an extremely progressive manner, liquidating the shareholders who tolerated terrible management while safeguarding retirees and preserving a strong union for workers remaining in the industry. The "cash for clunkers" plan may have been a bit of a giveaway to the industry, but then since the U.S. government owns a chunk of the industry, reviving industry profits means returning some of the money to the government itself as a shareholder..

And More to Come: Many more progressive achievements are within reach as well, moving through the meatgrinder political process too slowly for some progressives but still quite possible in the next few months. From fundamental student loan reforms to remaking banking regulations to climate change legislation to immigration reform to labor law reform, high profile progressive initiatives are still being promoted by both the administration and Congressional leaders.

Again, we should always be demanding more-- and planning electoral responses where possible against the Congressional repesentatives and Senators blocking better reforms -- but we also need to highlight what we've won, keep allies and the base of progressives excited so that they will have the energy to fight those fights.

Progressives have been winning in the last year. We just need to keep reminding ourselves and the public of how full the cup is-- and planning to fill it the rest of the way as we win more elections in the future. It's worth remembering that large parts of what we consider the New Deal were not enacted until many years into FDR's Presidency. Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act were enacted only in 1935, three years into his term, while the federal minimum wage was enacted only in 1938, in FDR's sixth year in office. But along the way, progressives won individual victories that continually fed progressive energy for the next fight. That's the challenge now for progressives, to claim existing victories and build on that energy for fights to come.

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