The Affordable Care Act and Texas

The Supreme Court’s decision this week inspired millions of people to declare their expertise on the U.S. Constitution and weigh in on the Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This blog isn’t about constitutional law and I see no point in adding another marginally informed voice to that debate.  Maybe I don’t know enough about how the Supreme Court operates but it seems unlikely to me that Chief Justice Roberts will read this blog and decide to reconsider the case.

Instead, we should focus on the impact of the decision on Texas. State government needs to make a double of decisions pretty quickly.

The state will need to create a state health insurance marketplace where individual Texans and businesses can shop for health insurance. Texas and other states have until January 1, 2013 to demonstrate to the Department of Health and Human Services that their system will be up and running by January 1, 2014. If the state doesn’t create an exchange the federal government will create one.

The state government will also be offered funds to extend Medicaid to more Texans. Under ACA, Medicaid would cover everyone with incomes under 133% of the federal poverty level (about $31,000 for a family of four). Initially, federal funds will pay for 100% of the expansion. However, that rate will drop to 90% by 2019. Many of the state’s leaders are vowing to turn down these federal dollars. The problem is that people under the federal poverty level will not be eligible for the subsidies the law provides to buy their own coverage. These people will lobby for coverage and the hospitals that have to take care of them will lobby the state to eliminate this gap in coverage to make sure they don’t get stuck with the costs.

The Texas Tribune has brought in a couple of guest columnists to highlight the promise and perils that Texas faces with the implementation of ACA. Arlene Wohlgemuth, the executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, argues that the law places an undue burden on businesses and further strains an already overburdened Medicaid system. Anne Dunkelberg, the associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, makes the case that the law is imperfect but a good start on providing coverage to the 6.2 million Texans don’t have health coverage. These two columns do a pretty good job of sketching out the debate and are a good starting point for a meaningful debate about what Texas should do next.


Standing firm for smoke and mirrors

Several groups have stepped up to say that they will insist that school funding be tied to “accountability standards” (“Business Leaders Draw a Line on Education Funding“).

This seems like a way to conceal cutting education. By insisting on adherence to foolish policies these special interest groups are playing a variation of the “poison pill” strategy. A poison pill is a strategy used by companies to discourage hostile takeovers by building in something that makes the company less attractive to the potential buyer. So, these special interest groups will only support fully funding the system if local school districts accept testing that most consider counter productive.

Why do these political interests cling to the idea of high stakes testing? One reason is that people will believe anything that supports them paying less for education. Another side of this is basic power politics. These wealthy groups want to feel that they are in control and the locally elected school boards have defied them. Either way, it’s a game that no one will win.

Higher ed politics in Texas

The Bryan College Station Eagle has a story (“Coalition still monitoring higher ed developments in wake of controversy“) on the gradual demise of some of the “reforms” to higher education in Texas.

How much does lobbying matter?

Politico is reporting (“K Street: ‘Let’s meet’; Hill staffers: ‘Text me‘”) the highlights of an in-depth study of lobbying practices and how they are received on the Hill. The report compiled input from over 2,200 lobbyists and 700 Congressional staffers. The study sounds really interesting but costs $597, a price that only a lobbyist could love.

One interesting finding is that more than one in five congressional staffers said lobbyists have little or no influence at all and less than two in five agreed with the idea (held by four out of five lobbyists) to be very influential. Congressional staffer may not want to admit how often they are influenced and lobbyists are inclined to overestimate their importance.

Where to congressional staffers turn for information? In the study, 30 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans consult lobbyists when researching public policy issues and 30 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats almost always consult constituents. It may seem alarming to see congress turning to lobbyists for advice. However, congressional votes turn on relatively technical issues that constituents. Further, as the graph below suggests, staffers are most likely to turn to those lobbyists who have given them accurate information in the past.

Members of congress know their constituents and a conservative member is not going to rely on the advice of a liberal lobbyist in making decisions. A lobbyist serving as a source of information does not mean that they are a source of influence.

I spent time with lobbyists researching a book on White House relations with Congress since almost everyone who works as a lobbyist for the White House goes on to make big bucks as a lobbyist for the private sector. I learned that there are two types of lobbyists when it comes to access to key decision makers: the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots sit in the waiting room with other unimportant people (me), hoping to get a few minutes with the member of Congress or  a staffers. Members of Congress stop to chat with the haves. I had a senator stop by to chat while I was interviewing a lobbyist in one of the areas behind the Senate chamber.  On another occasion, I was interviewing on lobbyist in his office when the chair of a House committee called the lobbyists. I have always suspected that lobbyists on average have almost no influence but that a handful of lobbyists have the connection and credibility to have some real influence.

Another key to understanding the influence of lobbyists is that they have the most influence when we’re paying the least attention. Most of these lobbyists are talking to legislators about issue most of us haven’t thought about. Even if they don’t have much influence on what we consider important issues, they may have a huge impact on the issues of interest to the organized interests they represent. Tax loopholes come from someplace.

So, the question of how much influence lobbyists have is complicated and we need to understand how they work in order to judge how effective they are.

Texas census snapshot

The Census Bureau has an online tool that lets you take a look at some of the latest census figures. Click on the image below to go to the interactive version on the Census Bureau’s website and you can look at county-by-county population growth.

2010 Texas Census Snapshot

Building the great divide

Having talked about the division in politics today it seemed like a good time to look at where the divide game from. Luckily, the Pew Center has a new study out (“Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years“) on the growing partisanship of the public.

Let me start by emphasizing that this is about public opinion. This is us. Bush and Obama could have done much more to change the tone in politics, but this data makes it clear that many of us are readily buying anything and everything the fringes of the parties are feeding us. In fact, 71% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats say their parties have not done a good job standing up for their party’s traditional positions. That’s right. We’re asking for our parties to be more divisive.

Growing divide between parties on environmental lawsEnvironmental policy an excellent example of the growing divide. In 1992, Republicans, Democrats and independent voters differed little on support for environmental laws. Since then the gap has grown dramatically.

As the Pew study documents, something like this has happened on many issues.

One of the first things scholars learned when they started doing research into voting behavior is that party identification plays a complicated role in the voting decision. People’s party identification aren’t simply the result of what we see in politics. Partisanship shapes their perception of the political world. Simply put, many of us see the world as Democrats or Republicans. We filter or shade information based on our previously held political views and this confirms our party identification.

Partisan gap vs other gaps

The Pew results show that the partisan divide has been growing rapidly while divisions based on race, education, wealth, etc have changed little.

Today, it looks like voters are increasingly picking their issues based on their partisanship. While we can blame partisan media and party leaders for fooling us, we don’t need to make it this easy.

We can find evidence in Texas public opinion. A recent Texas Tribune poll found that opinions on Planned Parenthood were strongly correlated with party identification and political philosophy.

Attitudes on Planned Parenthood by party

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discussed on a recent episode of Bill Moyer & company, Americans have become increasingly interested in dividing up into good vs evil. Haidt argues that once we crossed over from normal political disagreement into Manichaean (good versus evil) politics we made compromise impossible because you don’t compromise with evil.

Haidt talks about the need to get beyond “confirmation bias” and only getting information that supports our existing views. The virtue of higher education is that it brings together people with different views and from different areas. This disrupts the self-segregation that has created the “lifestyle enclave” where little that we believe is challenged.

If people are concentrating just with people who are like them, then they’re not exposed to the ideas from the other side, from people that they can actually like and respect. If you get all your ideas about the other side from the internet, where there’s no human connection, it’s just so easy, and automatic to reject it, and demonize it. So once we’ve sorted ourselves into homogeneous moral communities, it becomes a lot harder to work together.

The mythology of the Alamo is another example of how we cling to certain beliefs. Authors who have questioned the claim that Davy Crockett fought to the death in the Alamo have reported receiving many angry letters. Apparently, many people feel absolutely certain about how Crockett died. However, everything I have learned about the battle of the Alamo over the last few years indicates that no one knows with any certainty what happened to Crockett. Why then do people feel such absolute certainty about  Crockett’s demise and react with such hostility to anyone who disagrees?

What kind of dialog can we have in a setting like this? How do we teach history and politics to partisans who are resistant to new information and perspectives? And, how to political leaders move the public ahead when the audience has become so proficient at not listening?

Crossing the great divide

Nick Anderson’s cartoon pretty effectively sums up the competition driving Texas politics. Republicans are fighting frantically among themselves for control of Texas government–even though they’re headed down the same road.

The Two Party System

The division in Republic party’s state convention (“Convention shows GOP’s fractured unity “) is only the latest evidence that factionalism is the dominant theme of American politics. Republican Bryan Hughes filed for Speaker, launching another challenge to House Speaker Joe Straus. I’ve argued before that this is largely a matter of political muscle flexing. Too many people care more about the perception of power than making progress. It reminds me of watch children fight over who gets to ride in the front seat. Someone always refuses to enjoy where they’re going because they didn’t get to sit exactly where they wanted.

Of course, this isn’t unique to the Texas GOP. The failed recall effort in Wisconsin illustrates that unions and other liberal groups can be every bit as disruptive and groups within the conservative coalition. The Democrats were very good about dividing up in the 1960s and 1970s when the anti-war purists attempted to purge the party of others. People were physically thrown out of caucus meetings. During this time the labor unions, civil right groups, and anti-war forces divided the Democratic party and helped contribute to the rise of the GOP. Today’s Republican politics looks very much like the petty squabbling of those Democrats–and that should be enough to alarm Republicans.

Wearing blindersThe Citizens United case and other changes in campaign finance have only encouraged individual corporations or labor unions to go their own way and advocate for themselves more narrowly. Today, individual political action committees, corporation, or other narrow interests are more free to work individually and pursue their own self-interest without working with others. Special interest donors and self-interested voters see no need to compromise with others since the campaign allowed them to work alone. Campaigning today provides fewer opportunities for people with similar interests to sit down, discuss their differences, and realize that these other views have some legitimacy. The people who think the Speaker Straus or Dewhurst are closet Democrats or RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) are demonstrating what happens when you never take off your political blinders.

This only works until representatives elected by these narrow interests get together in the Legislature and begin to craft public policy. Thus, the first time many constituencies see a need to compromise is when the work has moved to the legislature. At that point, it is easy to blame the legislator’s integrity or bargaining skills when you don’t get exactly what you want. Unfortunately for the narrow-minded fringes in politics, our political system demands compromise. The US Constitution is itself a compromise (think about the integrity behind the three-fifth compromise) and failing to understand that sets you up for a lifetime of disappointment. You’re not getting exactly what you want because that’s what James Madison and the rest of the founders embedded in the Constitution.

The problem is compounded by a lack of understanding of the consequences of public policy. For example, many groups demanded more accountability and less bureaucracy even though accountability creates bureaucracy. The “small government” advocates today calling for the end of state-mandated high-stakes testing in public schools represent the same interests that created those tests originally (and continue to push new forms of “accountability”).

The fact that so many Republicans felt that the Legislature just wasn’t conservative enough despite the huge Republican majority is a bigger indictment of voters’ expectation than legislators’ performance. It’s silly to believe that Rick Perry and the huge Republican majority were not as conservative enough to represent Texas and that many more cuts in government programs could be made. Such complaining may be good fun at parties and occasionally therapeutic, but voters need to understand that many of their expectations are not realistic.

Unfortunately, Texas and the nation lacks leaders brave enough to talk honestly with people about the tough decisions. Politicians don’t like telling people to grow up because it costs them votes and contributions.