The Obama Administration

Shocker: Health-Exchange Websites Can Be Done Right

That sure seems easy.
In the last few days, you might have seen a news story about something called Thehealthsherpa.com . The story usually goes like this: "The federal government may have screwed up when it tried to create the Obamacare website, despite spending hundreds of millions on contractors. That's why three tech geeks thought they could do a better job. And after just a week of coding, they did it." So have these guys solved all our problems? Is it now a piece of cake for everyone to find out what their insurance options are on the individual market? That would sure be a good thing, especially since nearly everyone complaining that their plans are being cancelled—the folks whose fate has suddenly become the most important moral and practical crisis facing America—seems to be taking their insurers at their word when they get those threatening letters instead of trying to find out what their choices actually are. The answer is ... sort of, maybe. Thehealthsherpa.com isn't actually the only site that...

Darrell Issa, the Obama Administration's Best Friend

Darrell Issa smiles uncomfortably upon realizing he's posing with Judy Collins, whom he's pretty sure is some kind of hippie. (Flickr/Music First Coalition)
When Darrell Issa filled the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform after Republicans took back the House in the 2010 election, he promised that he was going to be a dogged pursuer of the Obama administration. But at this point, I'm genuinely curious about how Republicans feel about Issa. Conservatives sincerely believe that the Obama administration is riddled with corruption, starting with the villainous president and going all the way down to the intern who makes copies in the basement of the Commerce Department. Yet Issa has turned out to be a strikingly incompetent clown, screwing things up spectacularly every time he tries to embarrass the administration and being so transparently sleazy in the way he goes about his work that he never succeeds in pinning anything on Obama. Think about all the times Republicans thought they had Obama dead to rights and Issa couldn't deliver the goods. There was Solyndra, "Fast and Furious," the IRS scandal, and of...

Between a Rock and a Polling Place

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais F ew things excite a political reporter more than polls. They're the sports statistics of the electoral grind, giving any argument that little extra oomph. For people not necessarily known for their numerical prowess, a cleverly placed percentage point is the perfect condiment for any story. Heck, polls can even be the story. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those alluring little numbers can end badly. In election off-season it's not so noticeable, with polls slowing to a relative trickle and our attentions focused elsewhere—or so far in the future that the ambitious dreams of Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton dancing in our heads outweigh any margins of error. But the polls are still there. Exhibit A: presidential approval ratings. Public-opinion polls released in the past few weeks have come together to cast Mean Girls -like aspersions on President Obama's popularity. According to today’s Gallup tracker, the president’s popularity is at 41 percent...

Who’s on First? Under Boehner, It’s Always the Senate.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
I f someone is looking for the perfect example of how the 113th Congress functions, it doesn’t get much better than last week. The Senate beat back a filibuster to pass a popular bill with support from every Democrat in the chamber and a handful of Republicans. The House? Oh, it took the week off. And so the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) joins the immigration bill in the queue for House action, with neither of them—so far—expected to move any further. Despite the fact that both would win if voted on. But don’t blame the Hastert Rule—the informal rule in the House of Representatives that Speaker John Boehner can only bring to the floor items supported by a majority of his party. This is all about the Boehner Rule: The Senate goes first. That’s been the way that the speaker has dealt with his next-to-impossible situation all year (as I discussed back in March). It’s a problem caused by his dysfunctional conference, which is unable to work as a normal House majority during a...

Obamacare Expansion in the Offing?

Flick/urbanbohemian
Every few days, a new poster child for the horror of Obamacare comes along, the person who just loves their insurance plan but has been told it's being cancelled. Pretty much every time, their story turns out to be full of holes—the plan they're on is junk insurance, they'd be able to get better and cheaper coverage through the exchanges, and so on ( here's the latest). But without a doubt, this small group of people (and not, say, the millions who are getting free or low-cost coverage for the first time) have become the momentary face of the Affordable Care Act, at least in the mainstream news media's eyes. So now the administration is scrambling to deal with this political problem, and here's the latest twist : The most popular idea for a fix on the Hill is legislation that would entitle someone who purchases health insurance coverage through the end of this year to keep that coverage. Other legislative responses may include extending the health exchange enrollment deadline or or...

The Democrats' Original Food-Stamp Sin

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future. But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House. They used money from the food-stamp program to pay for other priorities like education, health care and the school lunch program, all the while assuring that they would eventually...

Bill de Blasio's Elements of Style

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Jenny Warburg W hen he wins New York City's mayoral election today, Bill de Blasio will have succeeded in branding himself the next big thing in progressive politics. But it remains to be seen which de Blasio shines through over the next four years: the former Hillary Clinton operative who admires neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo and is friendly with the real-estate industry, or the activist lefty who got arrested protesting the closure of a Brooklyn hospital and has promised to take on income inequality and the New York Police Department's sprawling anti-terrorism apparatus. "The aspiration is to be fundamentally transformative," says Professor John Mollenkopf at The City University of New York's Center for Urban Research. "He really does want to see how New York City can become less unequal and more capable of promoting upward mobility. But assuming things go the way the polls suggest, he still faces an enormous challenge." In particular, de Blasio will have to muscle through an...

Long Live the Kludge

AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Jonna Spelbring
L ast week’s buzzword was “kludge,” as everyone from Paul Krugman to Michael Lind decided that the Affordable Care Act was a perfect example of “What’s Wrong With America.” It’s an argument that Steven Teles made recently in an important essay at National Affairs . For Teles, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins, the way the United States is governed has become increasingly incoherent and even unworkable in policy domain after policy domain. His diagnosis is that our current state of affairs is the result of the accumulation of “kludges”—a term from computer programming for temporary patches. U.S. policy is dominated, he argues, by these ad hoc workarounds, rather than systematic policies. In the short run, make-do kludges are often good enough. But over time, they pile up, one upon another, and the result eventually becomes impossible for anyone to make sense of. Moreover, even when total policy catastrophe is avoided, ad-hoc “solutions” are rarely efficient, and all those...

No, Obama Isn't Trying to "Pack the Court"

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Like a not very bright seven-year-old with a shiny new toy, the National Review has found an inane talking point to run into the ground. "Republican AGs vs. Obama’s Court-Packing Plan" announces one headline. "House Testimony on D.C. Circuit Court-Packing Plan" says another. Then there's the straight-the-point " No Court Packing ." The sheer dumbness of the argument hasn't stopped it from appearing in columns with the byline of members of the United States Senate, also published in a journal that may stand athwart history even if it has little comprehension of it: It is one of the most important battles raging in Washington, a fight that will have far-reaching consequences for everything from health care and the regulatory state to gun rights and the war on terrorism. Yet most Americans have heard nothing about it. I’m talking about Democratic efforts to pack the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. What conservatives are whining about, of course, is the Constitution. President...

Super Sad Spy Story

AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte
AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte L et’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration. It's potentially primed to be part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad. The latest news centers on allegations that the NSA has been tapping the cell phones of over 35 heads of state, from Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Originally reported last week by the German magazine Der Spiegel , the shock waves from Berlin continue to ripple throughout the globe. Foreign governments everywhere are now scrambling their intelligence agencies’ best and brightest to see if they were...

Another Phony Obamacare Victim Story

NBC News' Obamacare victim, who it turns out is not actually a victim.
In the last couple of decades, a particular technique of news-story construction has become so common that I'm sure you barely notice it as something distinctive. It's the use of a device sometimes referred to as the "exemplar," in which a policy issue is explained through the profile of one individual, whose tale usually begins and ends the story. It's ubiquitous on television news, but print reporters do it all the time as well. As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't being hurt at all. To see...

The Biggest Design Flaw in Healthcare.gov

The pathway to disaster.
In my column today , I argue that the Healthcare.gov disaster has its roots in the government-contracting system, where big projects that go past deadline and over budget is standard operating procedure. There is one particular design flaw, however, that I didn't get a chance to discuss there but is worth noting. My guess is that it wasn't given all that much thought, or at the very least, somebody had what sounded like a good reason at the time to do it the way they did. But the result was that the administration needlessly multiplied the headaches it would have with the rollout and made everyone's experience significantly worse, and it didn't have to be that way. Before I tell you what it is (the suspense is killing you, I know), let's stipulate that Healthcare.gov did indeed present an extremely complex challenge, much more so than just creating an ordinary website. That's because it isn't a closed loop, but rather needs to communicate in real time with a bunch of outside systems,...

The Next Battle at the Fed

AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais W ith the Administration’s stunning decision to name Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve, at least one major government institution will weigh in strongly on the side of economic recovery, right? Well, maybe. First, of course, Yellen has to be confirmed. That, thankfully, seems a good bet. But there is also the problem of three vacancies on the seven-member Fed Board of Governors, which President Obama will soon fill. If the wrong people are appointed to these jobs, Yellen’s ability to aggressively use low interest rates to strengthen the recovery will be destroyed. But why would Obama do that? The Treasury and Wall Street crowd who dearly wanted Larry Summers rather than Yellen will now be focusing on the three other seats. If they can’t get their man in as chair, at least they can narrow the options of the woman who got the job. The same insiders who pressed Obama to go out on a limb for Summers will be pushing hard for Wall-Street-friendly...

Mission Affordabled: Why Obama’s Website Problems Aren’t “His Iraq”

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File Y es, the Affordable Care Act website rollout has been a fiasco. And, as always happens when political catastrophe strikes, the wave of bad analogies has rushed in its wake. One in particular is gaining ground: Healthcare.gov is for Barack Obama’s presidency what the invasion of Iraq was to George W. Bush’s administration, complete with outraged liberal reactions to it . Here’s the funny thing: it’s a bad analogy, which could turn out to be accurate … but probably won’t. To start with, the fact that people died in Iraq, as opposed to the inconvenience involved in a malfunctioning website, doesn’t make it a bad analogy. The analogy has to do with presidential decisions; it’s about process, not outcomes, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. No, what makes it a bad analogy is that Iraq War was misconceived from the start, and the actual events of the war, to a large extent, made obvious what some saw from the beginning. With the exchanges, on the...

No, Healthcare.gov's Problems Will Not Offer the GOP Political Deliverance

Some of the healthcare.gov contractors testifying today.
Today marks the beginning of what will surely be a series of hearings in Congress at which members will fulminate and shake their fists at various people who had responsibility for creating Healthcare.gov. It's quite something to see some congressman who's still struggling to figure out how to work the Blackberry his staff gave him asking questions about beta testing and error logs and a bunch of other stuff he doesn't begin to understand. But maybe the weirdest thing is the feeling one gets from the GOP over the last few days, which can be summarized as, "We got 'em now!" They seem to believe that the website problems are going to provide the deliverance they've been waiting for after the political disaster of the government shutdown. Here's a little prediction: Feigned Republican outrage over the ACA web site is going to be just as effective in reversing the GOP's current fortunes as feigned Republican outrage over Benghazi was in undoing Barack Obama's re-election bid. Nevertheless...

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