TPM Cafe: Opinion

When op-ed writers take on the problem of dysfunction in Washington by asking the hackneyed “why is Washington broken?” question, they run the risk of offering a “solution” that merely creates new problems. David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “Strengthen the Presidency, is a case in point. Brooks overlooks the root causes of political dysfunction in the U.S. and prescribes a dangerous remedy.

Brooks argues that the solution to legislative gridlock is simple: “[m]ake the executive branch more powerful.” Brooks’ argument depends on generalizations and overlooks the historical record, as well as the foundational principles of American constitutional democracy. The drafters of the Constitution created a document with many flaws, but their work also reflected important pieces of wisdom. Among their most central insights, they rightly understood that concentrating power in any one branch of government was, in James Madison’s words, “the very definition of tyranny.”

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Hey, Sam Youngman.

It’s me, someone living in D.C. who eats, sleeps, and breathes American politics for a living. I’m taking a break from having my own opinions validated on twitter (or whatever it is you think I do all day) to respond to your recent Politico piece about working in Washington.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.

Unlike a lot of folks you describe in “Take This Town and Shove It,” I actually have roots here in the DMV.

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Clarification: This piece has been updated to more accurately reflect the status of the budgeting process. Updated: 1:20 p.m.

The House of Representatives and the Senate have now both signed off on a bipartisan budget deal that the president is likely to sign and clears the way for normal appropriations to begin again. While animated and outraged politicos of every stripe will be busy declaring the end to budget brinksmanship for now with an eye toward pending re-election campaigns, another piece of legislation has flown under the radar. There has been very little attention paid to this: the Senate Finance Committee has already passed legislation likely to be approved by the full Senate that contains funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs (ab-only) that have been proven not to work.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), in his ongoing effort to carry water for religious conservatives, spearheaded the reallocation of $250 million dollars to ineffective ab-only programs through 2019 as part of the so-called Medicare doc fix, which would allow doctors to avoid a pay cut under current law. Hatch did the same thing with a $250 million dollar amendment for ab-only which he tacked onto the Affordable Care Act. In fact, ab-only groups have pulled in over a billion dollars in federal funding since 1996, the largest share coming under George W. Bush.

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Last week, the Michigan legislature passed the “Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act” which bans private insurance companies from covering abortion services in the state and will force women to purchase additional insurance if they want abortion care to be covered by their health insurance. The bill contains no exception for cases of rape or incest, and you cannot purchase the rider once you are pregnant. It must be purchased prior to a possible pregnancy.

So what does this mean for Michigan? Basically, a woman has to purchase additional insurance on top of her existing insurance in order to have coverage for an abortion before she ever gets pregnant. If a woman is raped and becomes pregnant but has not purchased the separate rider for abortion coverage, she cannot have her health insurance pay for it. Michigan women are now forced to pay more simply because they may possibly become pregnant at some point, no matter the circumstances. Now enshrined in Michigan law is an understanding that women are always pre-pregnant, and it is up to you to pay more simply because you have a uterus.

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As I discussed in my last TPMCafe column, a powerful meme is developing in Washington that interprets the recent behavior of congressional Republicans as evidencing a “civil war” against conservative radicalism, pointing to the revival of a “pragmatic” GOP that will be ready to govern come 2016. Such prophecies typically foresee the presidential nomination of a Chris Christie or a Jeb Bush to lead the triumphal Return to the Center of the pachyderms. After all, even in their period of wild reaction to Barack Obama, didn’t GOPers nominate “moderates” John McCain and Mitt Romney?

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Supporters called it “The Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.” Opponents referred to it as the “rape insurance” bill. Whichever name you use, the new measure that passed in Michigan will make it impossible for a person’s private insurance plan to cover an abortion under almost every circumstance – even in cases of pregnancy as a result of sexual assault – unless a separate rider is purchased.

Michigan is by no means the first state to require a separate rider for abortion coverage for insurance policies, and in fact joins eight other states that separate out elective abortions. In many of these cases riders don’t technically exist, and it’s unclear if Michigan will be any different.

However, Michigan’s “Opt-Out” act is groundbreaking, not just in the way that the measure was passed – by a 300,000 signature citizens’ petition and ratification by the House and Senate, rather than a bill that could (and last year did get) vetoed by the governor – but because it became a vocal and public debate revolving around whether or not a pregnant rape victim should be forced into giving birth.

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News coverage of the Senate’s confirmation of Congressman Mel Watt on Tuesday to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency was all about politics, not the housing or banking issues he now has to address. Nominated by President Barack Obama in May, Republicans blocked his approval for seven months. They claimed that Watt was not qualified for the position, despite his Yale law degree and his two decades of service on the House Financial Services Committee. In fact, their opposition had nothing to do with Watt’s qualifications. He was simply a victim of Washington’s partisan gridlock. On October 31, the Senate voted 56-42 on his behalf, but it was four votes shy of the 60 needed on the cloture motion to move forward. That made Watt the first sitting member of Congress since 1843 to be rejected by his peers for a cabinet-level position.

For Democrats, the Republicans’ rejection of Watt, as well as their rejection of Patricia Millett for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It galvanized them to change the rules to allow the President to make executive-level and court appointments by garnering a simple majority. Under the new rules, Watt finally got the support he needed, securing a 57 to 41 vote to lead the powerful agency that regulates mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own or guarantee about half of the nation’s mortgages.

Although news reports paid little attention to Watt’s new responsibilities as FHFA director, housing and bank reform advocates view his confirmation as a major victory.

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Nearly a year later, I still find myself crying when I think of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre of 20 first graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Christmas. I didn’t know any of them personally and I don’t live anywhere near Newtown – I live in Atlanta, almost 1,000 miles away. But I am the mother of two stepsons and a 4-year-old little girl who are dearer to me than anything, with another little girl on the way, and I cannot bear to think of the anguish those parents and family members faced that day. Beyond that, I am a human being, and like so many others who heard the news from Newtown from afar, I felt horror and heartbreak on that day last December.

Finally, I am a psychologist in a country where mental illness is still stigmatized, despite the fact that one in four Americans has a diagnosed mental health condition. So when Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recently announced the long-awaited final rules and regulations requiring all private American insurance plans to cover mental health treatment on an equal footing with more traditional medical care, I began to feel hopeful. The new regulations for mental health care as an essential service benefit in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) have the potential to significantly improve lives and reduce overall health care costs. Together with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, these regulations are extending federal parity protections, i.e. equality between mental health care and other types of medical care, to 62 million Americans.

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Today, policy makers think of education solely in terms of its secondary purposes. They speak of children as future global competitors. They sometimes refer to children in rather ugly terms as “human assets,” forgetting that they are unique people and they are not fungible. They want all students to be “college and career ready.” They tend to speak only of preparation for the workforce, not education for citizenship. But this is misguided. The central purpose of education is to prepare everyone to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

What does this mean for schooling?

It means first of all that all citizens need the essential tools of learning, which are reading and mathematics. Knowing how to read and knowing how numbers are used (and misused) to characterize almost everything are basic necessities for citizens.

Basic skills are necessary, but they are not enough to prepare the citizen.

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American public education has never been subject to as much upheaval and chaos as it is today. Schools need stability, not constant disruption. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools.

George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top are a double whammy. Together, they have severely undermined state and local control of education, even though the federal government puts up only 10% of the cost of public education. The tail is not only wagging the dog, it is controlling its every movement.

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