Thursday, September 24, 2009

Alan Khazei Kicks Off His Campaign in Boston Common Today

Alan Khazei launches his citizen-led campaign for the United States Senate today at noon at the Gazebo in Boston Common. I'm still very curious to see if the City-Year founder can put together a campaign apparatus to compete with Coakley, Capuano, and Pagliuca. Maybe today's event will provide a sense of how much public interest exists for a Khazei candidacy. Check out his latest campaign video here. Below I've posted his appearance on the Colbert Report in January.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alan Khazei
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Preliminary Election Results: Menino vs. Flaherty

The results are in, and it looks like we're in for a final election of Menino vs. Menino Light. The voters seem to have confirmed the prevailing wisdom. Menino has done a pretty decent job running the city, and the fact that he more than doubled the votes of his closest opponent solidifies his position as the formidable incumbent.

However, there are signs that Boston is ready for a change. After sixteen years of consolidating power and influence into his own hands, Menino may be holding the city back. If voters are ready to put Mumbles out to pasture, Flaherty is the natural successor. A city councilman who modeled his career after Menino, Flaherty was even described by the Boston Globe as, "the Menino of 1993 returning to haunt the 2009 version." Flaherty has portrayed himself all along as the updated version of the old model. He's Menino 2.0: reliable, trustworthy, and updated for a new era.

Yet over a quarter of the voters rejected both Menino and Flaherty, something that is at once invigorating and crushing for anybody dissatisfied with the status quo. Invigorating because with a campaign almost solely driven by the premise that Menino has too much power, Sam Yoon came within 2300 votes of overtaking Flaherty. Invigorating because Kevin McCrea, who ran a campaign around the notion that business as usual shouldn't be tolerated, garnered over 4 percent of the vote. And crushing because had Yoon's and McCrea's votes been consolidated by one progressive candidate, we might be looking at a real referendum on the status quo in November. Instead we're forced to choose between Menino and Menino 2.0.

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Massachusetts Senate Passes Interim Appointee Bill

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald reported that the Massachusetts State Senate passed the bill that will allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim senator. The bill passed by a vote of 24-16 and barring any parliamentary delays in the enactment of the new law, Patrick should be able to send a temporary senator to Washington in time to vote on health care reform. The interim senator will likely play a crucial role in the health care battle where reform proponents are trying to scrape together a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

So is the new law a flip-flop by a politically motivated body looking out for its own interests? Of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do. Massachusetts should have two senators representing their interests in Congress. Massachusetts Democrats may deserve chastisement for manipulating the political process, but not for this month's actions. Their transgression was five years ago when they changed the law in a transparent ploy to prevent Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican interim senator. The current effort to reverse the law may be motivated by party interest, but it is still a correction of a past mistake.

Give the legislators some credit. At least they removed the provision that would have required the interim senator to be a member of the party of the previous occupant. Such a requirement would have been a maneuver almost as self-serving and disingenuous as the 2004 law that prevented the Republicans from slipping into the Massachusetts Senate seat for a few months.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is Mayor Menino Too Powerful?

Okay, my Photoshop skills are a bit rusty, but you get the idea. Has Mayor Menino's massive political clout become his biggest liability? Will voters be swayed by the argument that the city is being held back by a system in which too much power is concentrated in one man? Or will Boston voters be content with another four years of the city's longest reigning and most popular mayor.

As the preliminary Boston mayoral election approaches, questions have been raised over whether Tom Menino has been in power too long and and whether he has accumulated too much power. Menino has come under increasing scrutiny for his tight grip on city affairs, but it remains unclear whether one of his opponents will be able to unseat the four-term incumbent. Perhaps the preliminary on Tuesday will provide some insight as to which way Boston voters are leaning. The election will narrow the field down to two candidates, likely pitting Menino against one of his three challengers Kevin McCrea, Sam Yoon, or Michael Flaherty.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Interim Appointee Bill Passes in Massachusetts House, Pagliuca Announces, Capuano and Khazei Videos

Big day for matters involving the Kennedy Senate seat. Stephen Pagliuca jumped into the race, announcing his candidacy at the TD Garden. Although not a seasoned politician, Pagliuca will be a factor in the race because of his financial resources (Somewhere around $400 million). You can expect to encounter the Celtics co-owner quite a bit over the next few months when you turn on your t.v. or radio. Will Massachusetts voters elect someone who supported Mitt Romney over Ted Kennedy to fill Teddy's seat?

Meanwhile, the legislation that would allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint an interim Senator passed in the Massachusetts House today. Notably, the provision requiring the appointee to be of the same political party as the previous occupant of the Senate seat was removed from the bill. The legislation may have a tougher time getting through the state Senate where Republicans hope to stall the measure.

Below, I've posted videos of two other potential candidates for the Kennedy seat. First is Congressman Mike Capuano's attempt to identify himself as the most Teddy-like candidate, citing his voting record. Capuano is expected to announce his candidacy on Friday.

Next is a video from potential candidate and City Year founder Alan Khazei. Khazei has pulled nomination papers and has begun gathering signatures. Khazei is the most intriguing candidate in my eyes so far. A political outsider who seems genuinely concerned with improving the welfare of others. Whether he can generate the political support or the fundraising to run a campaign is still be answered.

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Stephen Pagliuca Readies for Senate Race

It looks like Stephen Pagliuca, co-Celtics owner, is jumping in to the Senate race adding a wild card. Howie Carr tore up Pagliuca in the Herald yesterday, painting him as an ego-maniac with more money than he knows what to do with. We'll see if Pagliuca can emerge as a candidate of substance in the coming months. For now, he certainly has the resources to shake up the race. Check out his Forbes profile.

Martha Coakley's Health Care Message

This is the statement Martha Coakley issued via e-mail last night regarding health care. With health care reform looming as the most pressing issue in front of Congress, Coakley is trying to establish herself as somebody who can fill Ted Kennedy's shoes.

Reforming America’s health care system is critically important. The stakes have never been higher. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that 40 percent of employers plan to increase their workers’ expenses for doctors’ visits. And, eight percent plan to eliminate employee coverage altogether.

If we do nothing, annual health care costs for employers will more than double over the next decade -- to a startling $28,530 per employee.

These numbers are unsustainable. But they are not inevitable.

As Attorney General, I have fought to lower health care costs and have returned millions to the Commonwealth in Medicaid fraud recoveries.

I am running for the U.S. Senate to help fix our badly broken health care system once and for all. I believe we need to expand access to quality health care, control costs, and support a strong public option. Please go to to learn more.

Screen shot of health care video

click above to listen to Martha speak on health care in her own words

Ted Kennedy called health care reform "that great unfinished business of our society." I believe that everyone in America should have access to quality, affordable health care. I believe that doctors and patients - not insurance companies - should be in charge of health care decisions.

As your Attorney General, I have worked tirelessly to help Massachusetts realize these goals. Our progress on health care has become the touchstone for a national plan that will help make our shared vision of quality, affordable health care a reality for all Americans. As your Senator, I will fight for a health care system that works for all of us.

As always, thank you for your friendship and support.


Martha Coakley

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

E-mail Controversy Creates Momentum for Menino Opponents

Just over a week ago, I wrote a post about the first Boston Mayoral Debate. I was frustrated because news coverage of the debate in both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald didn’t reflect what I saw as a poor showing by Mayor Menino. In my eyes, the Mayor’s opponents (Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea, and Sam Yoon) raised serious concerns over whether Menino wields too much control over the city. The news coverage in both papers indicated that the Mayor wasn’t seriously damaged by his opponents’ charges.

The conventional wisdom leading up to the debate seemed to be that Menino’s practical political advantages would trump any poor debate performance. An object at rest remains at rest, and unseating an established sixteen-year incumbent just wasn’t in this election’s political physics. Menino would likely win through sheer inertia.

Well, less than two weeks after the first debate, the forces of opposition are aligning in such a way that they be able to budge the entrenched Menino machine. Flaherty, Yoon, and McCrea repeatedly hammered away at the Mayor in both debates for his excessive control over city politics, and have continued to do so in the days following.

In the past months, the Globe has churned out extensive pieces on Boston Public School sports and the Boston Redevelopment Authority both reflecting poorly on Menino. This week, the Globe has turned up the heat on the Mayor. On Sunday, the Globe published an article describing Menino’s extensive political machine, pointing out the blurring of lines between city business and mayoral campaigning. On Monday, Kevin McCrea was featured in favorable Globe profile after successfully establishing himself as a persuasive and informative gadfly in the debates. Most recently and most significantly, the Globe published a harshly critical editorial of the Mayor stating, “Menino runs the city government as his own fiefdom, which can make interacting with City Hall like trying to accommodate the imperious ways of a monarch.”

All of these efforts, however, may have gone for naught if the Globe hadn’t uncovered the recent e-mail deletion controversy. After “a public records request by the Globe unearthed only 18 e-mails to or from [Top Menino aide Michael ] Kineavy between Oct. 1. 2008 and March 31 of this year,” it became apparent that Kineavy had probably been illegally deleting e-mails. This led to a joint press conference by Flaherty, McCrea, and Yoon in which the mayor’s opponents stood in front of City Hall, called for an investigation, and accused the Menino administration of a cover-up. Now it appears that an investigation of some kind will take place.

This e-mail business has given the Mayor’s opponents exactly what they were missing just a week before the primary election, a sexy storyline. Earlier, they could point to excessive control over development or cite statistics that demonstrated bureaucratic inefficiency, but those arguments aren’t flashy enough to catch people’s attention. That Globe debate analysis that caused my original frustration pointed this out, “the debate at times meandered through the workings of City Hall bureaucracy and an array of statistics that probably numbed the minds of many viewers.”

This e-mail storyline has the power to do what effective debating could not. It can drastically and rapidly change public perception of the Menino administration. Debates may be easily overlooked or ignored. Frontpage headlines, investigations of top City Hall officials, allegations of corruption, and press conferences on the doorstep of City Hall, however, will not be. Whether this e-mail controversy turns out to be an actual cover-up or just a computer glitch, it has provided the momentum that had been missing from the political equation.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is the Congressional Budget Office and What is Its Role in Healthcare Reform?

The Congressional Budget Office has come up frequently in the current debate over healthcare reform. Here is a look at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the role it is playing in the reform process.

A Reputation for "Competence and Integrity"

The CBO is a non-partisan agency that provides Congress with “objective, nonpartisan, and timely analyses to aid in economic and budgetary decisions." One of the CBO's most important functions is to estimate the costs and revenues of proposed legislation. According to former CBO director Rudolph Penner, the CBO's "cost estimates guard against the Congress unwittingly adopting programs whose costs are very different in the long run than in the immediate future; and its policy analysis helps the Congress decide what works and what doesn't work."

The nonpartisan nature of the CBO is essential to its credibility. Penner says, "it lends more stability as political power shifts and that allows the development of specialized skills in different areas of public policy. A nonpartisan staff often has more credibility with outsiders, and although there are exceptions, those analysts who try to combine rigorous policy analysis with political judgments typically do not do well with either. It is better to let analysts be analysts and to let elected politicians decide which of the analytic results can be sold to the voters."

As pointed out in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece, "for competence and integrity, few organizations command more respect in Washington than the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office." Any CBO estimate of the cost of legislation will carry significant weight in a debate over whether a proposed bill is financially feasible. Once a CBO estimate is issued, it is taken seriously (Even if it is incorrect, but we'll get to the question of accuracy in a bit). Legislators aren't about to start arguing the nuts and bolts of budget analysis. "Trying to dispute technical details from CBO can quickly make voters’ eyes glaze over.

An Expensive Endeavor

When some legislators were worried about the cost of trying to provide medical coverage for the roughly 30 million Americans who don't have health insurance and the CBO released preliminary estimates in June suggesting the price tag of proposed plans would be over $1 trillion, there was legitimate concern that the endeavor would be too expensive. Politico correctly predicted that "as CBO estimates about the high cost of the health care proposal emerge in coming months, Republicans will continue to pound Democrats about the impact on the deficit."

In July when Congress was scurrying to meet President Obama's deadline to pass a bill before the August recess, CBO director Douglas Elemendorf testified before the Senate Budget Committee with a bleak assessment of the cost of proposed healthcare legislation. The Washington Post reported that Elmendorf's "
remarks suggested that rather than averting a looming fiscal crisis, the measures could make the nation's bleak budget outlook even worse." Elemendorf stated that while reforming the healthcare system could be a source of savings, the proposed "changes that we have looked at so far do not represent the sort of fundamental change, the order of magnitude that would be necessary, to offset the direct increase in federal health costs that would result from the insurance coverage proposals."

The estimates from the CBO along with Elmendorf's testimony provided some valuable ammunition for opponents arguing that proposed plans were not financially prudent. It became apparent that a positive assessment from the CBO was a hurdle healthcare reform would have to clear. Legislators would have to come up with ways to counteract the large expenses of expanding Medicaid and Medicare and providing subsidies for people who cannot afford to purchase insurance on their own.

(One method of paying for the expanded coverage proposed by House Democrats was a surtax on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. This proposal, however, seemed to lose steam almost immediately after it was proposed when it became apparent that a bill with such a provision would probably not make it through the Senate. Democrats would have to find something more palatable to the conservative members of their own party.)

Clearing the CBO Hurdle

In early September when Barack Obama addressed Congress in a joint session, he vowed not to sign any bill that adds "one dime" to the budget deficit. He argued that the savings that come from reforming the current healthcare system would cover the added expenses of expanding insurance coverage. He then added a new proposal: automatic spending cuts. A healthcare bill should include a trigger mechanism so that if the savings promised by proponents of reform do not materialize, spending cuts should be imposed.

The President did not offer specifics about where these cuts should come from, but as explained by Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, he may not have to. He can let Congress argue over the details. With such a trigger mechanism in place,
"precedents suggest that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office would be likely to conclude that the bill would not add to annual deficits [. . .] and a finding of deficit neutrality from the budget office, which 'scores' costs and savings over a 10-year period, is crucial to passing a health care bill."

Just days after the administration proposed automatic spending cuts, the CBO released a new estimate putting the price tag of healthcare legislation at $880 billion, a significant decrease.

Trigger Happy

While automatic spending cuts appear to be an effective means of getting a favorable CBO assessment, how effective will they be in practice? As Megan McArdle explains in the New York Times Room for Debate Blog, "we have already tried, and failed, to rein in Medicare costs with automatic spending cuts. In 1997, Congress enacted a rule that was supposed to control costs by triggering automatic cuts in doctor fees if they grew faster than the economy as a whole. Every year, Congress ritually votes to delay the cuts for another budget cycle. At this point, the next scheduled 'automatic' cut will slice doctor payments by more than 20 percent. The larger these disparities grow, the less likely they are to ever happen."

“We’ve been burned on triggers before: they get ignored, waived, and sometimes eliminated altogether,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is supported by business, to the New York Times. “We need to develop a serious and reliable trigger that politicians are actually willing to abide by.”

Questions of Accuracy and Reliability

I'm sure CBO analysts know what they're doing, but I can't help but question accepting the validity of automatic spending cuts when they have such a poor track record. What happens if the savings don't materialize and Congress chooses to ignore or postpone spending cuts? Similarly, it seems strange not to factor savings from proposed reforms into budget estimates. Apparently, "such savings cannot be scored by the Congressional Budget Office." And this leads us to questions of accuracy and reliability.

In a statment before Congress, Former CBO director Rudolph Penner, admitted, "it is inevitable that some of CBO's output will be wrong and some of it will be annoying to one political party or the other, either because mistakes were made or good analysis was badly timed." He went on to explain that, "no one forecasts anything very well." In the case of budget forecasting, "relatively small percentage errors in forecasting revenues and outlays [. . .] imply very much larger percentage errors in forecasting surpluses or deficits."

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Jon Gabel, a senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, argues that "the budget office’s record is suspect. In each of the past three decades, when assessing major changes in Medicare, it has substantially underestimated the savings the changes would bring." He goes on to assess the accuracy of CBO estimates regarding the last three instances of major healthcare legislation finding large discrepancies in each case. Gabel concludes that the CBO "has substantially overestimated the cost of health care reform three times out of three. As Congress now works on its greatest push for reform in generations, the budget office needs to revise the methods it uses to make predictions about costs."

Three Points

1) A favorable estimate from the CBO is essential for a healthcare bill to pass.
2) The CBO has overestimated the cost of the last three major pieces of healthcare legislation.
3) To get a favorable CBO estimate, the Obama administration has proposed automatic spending cuts which Congress has a history of ignoring when the cuts are supposed to be triggered.

What we can hopefully conclude from these three points is that a healthcare bill will pass, the savings will exceed expectations, and the automatic spending cuts will never need to be triggered. But as Rudolph Penner acknowledged, "nobody forecasts anything very well." Lets hope small miscalculations today don't lead to bigger problems down the road.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Labor Day "Healthcare Reform Can't Wait" Rally in Boston Common

On a day when the specter of Ted Kennedy was invoked by nearly every speaker at a “Healthcare Reform Can’t Wait Rally” in Boston Common, Representative Stephen Lynch, one of the men contemplating a run for the late Senator’s seat, got a taste of how his candidacy might play with liberal voters. The Congressman from the 9th district took the podium to the sound of scattered boos and cries of “Public Option.” As Lynch, the only politician present who has not come out strongly in support of a government-run insurance program, began his speech the crowd started chanting “Public Option, Public Option, Public Option.” Lynch attempted to ignore the crowd, but his words were quickly drowned out be the chanting.

Lynch has not come out against a government-run insurance program, but he has expressed skepticism about the price tag of such a program. He has stated that he will make his decision on the public option and other provisions of healthcare reform when a bill comes out. The question facing Lynch is whether Massachusetts voters are willing to replace the Senate lion who championed healthcare reform with a pragmatist who won’t publicly support a public option (Something many Democrats have deemed an essential component of any real reform effort).

Another hopeful Kennedy successor, Attorney General Martha Coakley, had a strong showing. Large “Martha Coakley” campaign signs lined the paved walkway leading up to the Gazebo where the rally was held. Coakley’s speech was short, but played well with the crowd. The first politician to speak, she drew cheers when she called for “accessible healthcare” for all Americans and “a viable public option.”

As noted in the Boston Globe’s recap of the event, Congressman Michael Capuano (who may be also throw his hat into the ring for the Senate spot) took a shot at others vying for the Kennedy seat, by urging voters to view healthcare reform as a test of who walks the walk. “It’s all well and good,” to have all these politicians present to “tell you how much we love you,” Capuano told the crowd, but what matters most is who is going to be in the trenches fighting “to get this thing done.” Capuano went on to say that he wouldn’t vote for reform for Barack Obama or even for Ted Kennedy, but for the constituents he has “the privilege of representing.”

Mayor Thomas Menino (the only mayoral candidate present) also addressed the crowd and was credited for helping Boston labor unions wage past healthcare battles. Menino was less than eloquent, but still commanded the attention of the crowd and drew applause for his calls for healthcare reform.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

First Boston Mayoral Debate

Mayor absorbs opponents’ digs, keeps composure” and “Menino brushes foes aside in debate” headlined the analyses of the first mayoral debate in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald respectively. The Globe’s Brian Mooney stated that the Mayor succeeded in his goal “not to lose his composure in the face of attacks” and responded to his opponents’ criticism with responses that “were generally measured and on point.” The Herald’s Richard Weir stated that the Mayor “cruised through a televised debate last night, emerging unscathed as his three rivals threw barbs - but none packing enough sting to knock him back.”

I won’t waste much space dismissing the 200 words the Herald spent on the debate. Suffice it to say that nobody without an ulterior motive or an inclination toward hyperbole would categorize Menino’s jumbled rebuttals to his opponents’ criticism as cruising. The Globe’s analysis warrants a closer examination. Is merely keeping one’s composure in the face of criticism the standard for success in a debate? Shouldn’t the ability to coherently articulate your position on an issue be at least a minimum requirement for an elected official?

Lets give Menino a pass on articulation as Boston voters have been inclined to do. A sixteen-year incumbent who by most accounts has kept the city in decent shape for four terms deserves some slack when it comes to elocution. Lets not, however, let him slide on his inability to adequately address the charges of his challengers. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that because Menino holds nearly every practical advantage whether in fundraising, popular support, or even name-recognition, all he has to do in these debates is keep his composure. He could blabber incoherently about bike riding for an hour so long as he doesn’t let his opponents get under his skin.

At times, Menino was strong in his responses to direct charges. When opponent Keven McCrea alleged that a Menino campaign contributor was the beneficiary a shady property deal, Menino clearly explained that the deal was a legitimate transaction under a program that grants a discount to abutting property owners on land that the city does not want to maintain (Nevertheless, paying only $5,000 for land assessed near $100,000 seems a bit dubious). On charges from McCrea and City Councilor Sam Yoon that detailing police officers to construction sites wastes city resources, Menino effectively argued that police officers are necessary for directing traffic around construction sites on main thoroughfares and also that detailed officers are valuable assets in community policing.

However, the Mayor’s responses to other charges could hardly be classified as brushing away harmless barbs. When his three challengers harped on City Hall’s inability to install 311 (A phone service in many other major American cities that allows residents, businesses, and visitors to inquire about city services, report problems, and get information) he dismissed the issue stating, “This is not about numbers, it’s about results. That’s what I’m talking about. Phone numbers just don’t do it. It’s about results you get when you make that phone call.” He did not even attempt to explain why Boston has not instituted such a fundamental program.

When Yoon brought up the Boston Redevelopment Authority (the agency directly under the Mayor’s control that oversees all city planning and development), a popular lightning rod for criticism of the Mayor’s overreaching grasp, Menino skirted the issue. Yoon’s argument was clear, “[T]he problem is the BRA is an agency that operates under the control of a single person — and that is you, Mr. Mayor — and operates behind closed doors in which millions of dollars changes hands and agencies like the research bureau or the Boston Finance Commission can’t even look in to what what’s going on at the BRA in terms of the way resources are allocated because it is, because of this structure.” Menino responded with the following statement:

“Let’s talk about the BRA. The BRA has developed the city over the last several years. But let’s look at the other parts of the BRA. They preserved 9,500 units of housing that were units that were going to be lost because of mortgage come due. So the BRA is doing a lot of good things. Look at what they’ve done around the city and the neighborhoods. They’ve rezoned a lot of our neighborhoods in the city of Boston, helped and redeveloped a lot of the neighborhoods of Boston, because neighborhoods are really where the vitality of Boston is and that’s where the BRA does so many good things. But you know, BRA is a change agent and people don’t like change.”

He did not address the charges that he is overreaching his authority, wielding too much power, or operating without transparency. And this is the crux of the problem. While none of his opponents established clear visions of how they would move Boston forward should they be elected, they were able to effectively portray Menino as a figure with too much power holding the city back from its potential. Perhaps Boston voters are content to keep control of the city consolidated in Menino’s hands, but the Mayor’s opponents raised serious concerns in the debate about such an autocratic arrangement.

For the best analysis of the debate I’ve come across, check out this article by Michael Jonas on Commowealth Unbound.

For a transcript of the debate, click here.