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What the 114th Congress did and didn’t do

Congress has wrapped up the 114th session, a tumultuous two years marked by the resignation of a House speaker, a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, bipartisan bills on health care and education and inaction on immigration and criminal justice.

The new Congress will be sworn-in Jan. 3.

What Congress passed or approved

  • A hard-fought budget and debt agreement that provided two years of relief from unpopular automatic budget cuts and extended the government’s borrowing cap through next March.
  • The end of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
  • A rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, creating an oversight board to supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors.
  • A sweeping biomedical bill that would help drug and medical device companies win swifter government approval of their products, boost disease research and drug-abuse spending and revamp federal mental health programs. It would also include money for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids.
  • The first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976.
  • A sweeping rewrite of education law, giving states more power to decide how to use the results of federally mandated math and reading tests in evaluating teachers and schools.
  • An aviation bill that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines.
  • An extension of a federal loan program that provides low-interest money to the neediest college students.
  • The USA Freedom Act, which extends some expiring surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks.
  • A bipartisan measure that recasts how Medicare reimburses doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people.
  • Legislation reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods.
  • $1.1 billion to combat the threat of the Zika virus.
  • Defense legislation rebuffing President Barack Obama’s attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and blocking the Pentagon from starting a new round of military base closings.
  • Legislation authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
  • Expanded law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers.
  • Legislation that would tighten several security requirements of the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without visas.
  • Cybersecurity legislation that would encourage companies to share cyber-threat information with the government.
  • A renewal of health care and disability payments to 9/11 first responders who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center.
  • A bill allowing families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged backing of the attackers, enacted in Obama’s first veto override.
  • A permanent ban on state and local government Internet taxes.
  • A bill that boosts government suicide prevention efforts for military veterans.
  • Confirmation of Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service.
  • The election of a new House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What Congress did not pass or approve

  • Confirmation of Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
  • Confirmation of 51 federal judges nominated by Obama, including 44 district court nominees and seven appeals court nominees.
  • Gun control legislation.
  • Bills that would have halted federal payments to Planned Parenthood.
  • Comprehensive or incremental changes to immigration law.
  • $1 trillion worth of agency budget bills that will be kicked into next year, complicated by a familiar battle over the balance between Pentagon spending and domestic programs and a desire by Republicans to get a better deal next year from the Trump administration. Congress passed a four-month extension of current spending instead.
  • A bipartisan criminal justice bill that would have reduced some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and increased rehabilitation programs.
  • The first comprehensive energy bill in nearly a decade, which would speed exports of liquefied natural gas and create a new way to budget for wildfires.
  • War powers for Obama to fight Islamic State militants.
  • A bill forcing the president to allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 after seven years of indecision.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Congress did give the president Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to ratify or reject trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch, but not change or filibuster them.
  • Child nutrition bills that would have scaled back the Obama administration’s standards for healthier school meals.

Costs of widely prescribed drugs jumped up to 5,241 percent in recent years

Jess Franz-Christensen did not realize the seriousness of her son’s Type 1 diabetes diagnosis until staff in the doctor’s office offered to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

Her next shock: The cost of Jack’s medicines.

The drugs, administered through an insulin pump, cost $1,200 a month.

“We’re really fortunate. We’re able to pay for stuff,” said Franz-Christensen, whose husband, Scott, is a physicist, while she stays home to care for Jack, 8, and their daughter, Kendall, 11.

“But there are people who are making decisions whether to feed their kid or get test strips — whether to pay rent or get a vial of insulin. It’s heart-breaking.”

Prices for insulin products have nearly doubled in recent years, including Lantus SoloSTAR — one of the drugs that Medicaid and Medicare spent the most on in 2015. Its price increased by 81.5 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to data analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The data were provided by California-based First Databank, a supplier of U.S. commercial drug pricing information.

The costs of seven widely prescribed antibiotics, cancer drugs, arthritis medications and other prescriptions have escalated between 29 percent and 5,241 percent in recent years, according to a joint investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Health News and Wisconsin Public Radio.

The investigation examined the impacts of and reasons behind the overall rise in prescription costs, including drug price increases since 2011, using proprietary First Databank data.

Overall, the price of insulin nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013, prompting calls this month for a federal investigation by former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont.

“They (drug companies) are making billions and billions of dollars on people who literally can’t afford it,” said Franz-Christensen, who has joined #MyLifeIsNotForProfit, a national grassroots parent movement.

Recent nationwide news coverage has focused on the rising cost of EpiPens, which counteract potentially fatal allergic reactions to peanuts, bee stings and other triggers. But the $600 cost for a two-pack of that medicine is just one example of lifesaving drugs with skyrocketing prices.

Synthroid, which is used to treat hypothyroidism, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States and has been on the market for more than 60 years. In just the past six years, it has nearly doubled in price, according to the Center’s analysis. The generic version of Synthroid, levothyroxine, has gone from 14 cents to 46 cents per pill, an increase of 231 percent between 2011 and 2016, the analysis shows.

A single two-week dose for Humira, a medication that treats conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, has increased 129 percent since 2011, to $2,000, according to First Databank data analyzed by the Center.

The price increases, which continue to mount, place economic and emotional pressure on patients and their families, squeeze the budgets of health care providers and raise costs for taxpayers in Wisconsin and nationwide, the joint investigation found.

Lack of competition raises costs

Spending on medications is rising for a variety of reasons:

  • Some pharmaceutical companies have taken action to extend the patent protections on their products, blocking cheaper generic versions from being developed.
  • As some companies stop making certain low-cost drugs, other companies gain monopolies over the market.
  • Companies are introducing more high-cost “speciality” drugs that treat lifelong conditions.
  • As the nation’s population ages, the demand for prescription drugs increases; more than half of Americans now use them.

In one practice known as “product hopping,” a company makes changes to a drug to extend its patent protections, keeping others from entering the market with cheaper alternatives.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel filed an antitrust lawsuit in September alleging that the makers of Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, changed the product from a tablet to a film that dissolves in the mouth to block alternatives and “maintain monopoly profits.”

Drug maker Indivior said it takes “these allegations seriously” and “intends to defend this and other related actions.”

“As long as drugs are on patent protection, manufacturers at that point have monopoly pricing ability and they can price their products at levels that the market will bear,” said Chuck Shih, who leads Pew Charitable Trusts’ specialty drugs research initiative.

In addition, as competitors drop out of the market, the remaining companies are “raising prices significantly and earning substantial profits,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

The price jumps have caught the attention of Congress, which held hearings after Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of a drug that treats toxoplasmosis — an illness that can cause brain damage, blindness, miscarriage or birth defects — by 5,000 percent shortly after acquiring it.

The increase in the price of EpiPens has also drawn congressional scrutiny. Between 2010 and 2016, the price has more than quadrupled, according to data from First Databank.

Seventeen senators, including Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, sent a letter to EpiPen maker Mylan in early November asking for more pricing information. The senators said the skyrocketing prices were raising costs for taxpayers and jacking up insurance premiums.

Lawmakers on the state and federal level are calling for new regulations to rein in drug prices. A dozen states have enacted laws requiring greater transparency in drug pricing and other measures, but no state has enacted price controls.

California voters rejected a proposal earlier this month to implement their own price control system, which would require state agencies to pay the same rates negotiated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The two sides poured more than $100 million into the effort, most of it from pharmaceutical companies opposed to the measure.

Holly Campbell, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, attributed the increase in EpiPen prices to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration backlog in approving new generics and a “lack of competition” in the market.

Working poor hit hard

For those without insurance or who cannot afford their share, the rising cost of medications has left them facing hard choices.

Kathryn Drexler, a registered nurse and certified diabetic educator at the free Living Healthy Community Clinic in Oshkosh, said some of her patients ration their insulin. So many are asking the clinic for medication help “that it’s draining our budget,” she said.

“I think it’s hitting the working poor the hardest,” Drexler said. “They can’t afford their co-pays, and they can’t afford insulin out of pocket.”

Free clinics provide care and drugs to the roughly 323,000 people, or 5.7 percent of state residents who lack insurance, as well as some people who are underinsured. And while drug companies offer free prescriptions to certain low-income people with no insurance, generic medications — which comprise eight out of every 10 prescriptions — do not qualify.

University of Wisconsin pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Ellen Connor said the price increases have thrown some of her patients into despair.

“Families — this is what they agonize over,” Connor said. “They lose sleep over it. I have parents sobbing in the office over this. They feel like failures because they had lost jobs and couldn’t afford $500 of medications a month. It breaks your heart.”

For the insured, drug price hikes have contributed to higher deductibles and co-pays, said Dr. Tim Bartholow, chief medical officer for the not-for-profit insurer WEA Trust in Madison.

The price increases are hitting hospitals too, costing University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics an additional $14 million in the past year, according to Steve Rough, pharmacy director.

Rough noted large increases among generic drugs with no competitors.

“I call it generic price-jacking, where companies purchase the rights to a low-cost generic drug that is routinely used in the care of many patients, just for the sole purpose of raising the price to make money, because they can,” he said.

Taxpayers left with hefty tab

Prescription drugs are a growing portion of health care spending nationwide, accounting for 16.7 percent or $457 billion of total U.S. health care spending in 2015 — about double the percentage from the 1990s, according to a report released in March.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found the number of prescriptions is rising, but most of the spending growth is due to rising prices and a shift toward more expensive medications.

The state’s Medicaid program — which receives both federal and state funding — spent $329.4 million in the fiscal year between July 2011 and June 2012 on prescription drugs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. By July 1 of this year, annual spending had grown to $427.7 million — a 30 percent increase. The amount can vary year to year because of rebates the program receives from drug manufacturers.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman, said the program has taken numerous steps to address growing costs, such as requiring patients to get prior approval before receiving more expensive medications.

Meanwhile, a September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 55 percent of Americans nationwide reported taking prescription drugs. About 26 percent of them — or 14 percent of the U.S. population — found it somewhat or very difficult to pay the cost of their prescription medication.

Even generics now too expensive

Paul Hoffmann, manager of the Bread of Healing Clinic in Milwaukee, said his free clinic can no longer afford to provide some generic medications.

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 35 years, and this is a phenomenon that we never saw,” Hoffmann said. “All these long-standing generics that have been generic for some 20, 30 years are going up in astronomical prices.”

He cited doxycycline, used to treat infections. First Databank figures show the price skyrocketed by 12,024 percent from 2011 to early 2013 because of drug shortages. The price has dropped, but the antibiotic is still 5,240 percent higher than in 2011 — or more than 50 times more expensive.

Lawmakers eye transparency initiatives

Some state lawmakers are looking for ways to curb drug prices. Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, plans to introduce legislation next year requiring the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance to collect information about the cost of drugs to public health care programs and develop a strategy to reduce prices.

Meanwhile, Baldwin has co-authored a bill at the federal level requiring pharmaceutical companies to submit a report to the federal government a month before increasing a product’s price by 10 percent or more.

PhRMA spokeswoman Campbell called the proposal “a thinly veiled attempt to build a case for government price setting.”

But observers say the conversation around drug pricing has changed.

“You have these very high profile seemingly outrageous price hikes that have focused the attention of policymakers in a way that I haven’t seen before,” said Levitt, of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There’s a window where we could see some policy changes.”

Franz-Christensen hopes Congress will fix the problem.

“The people that can’t afford it, they’re so overwhelmed,” she said. “They can’t fight. … If it’s hard for us, people who have everything, imagine the people who don’t.”

Cara Lombardo and Andrew Hahn of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this report.

Sean Kirkby reports for Wisconsin Health News, an independent, nonpartisan, online news organization serving Wisconsin health care professionals and decision makers. Dee J. Hall is managing editor of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Bridgit Bowden is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Koch brothers spend $44 million to hijack Wisconsin

For the 2016 election cycle, Charles and David Koch have announced they are on track to spend nearly $900 million to elect politicians that would push their self-serving agenda.

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have spent more than $44 million since 2010, helping to foster the rise of Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson and to fund political astroturf groups to carry their water.

What the Kochs are doing in Wisconsin is emblematic of what they’re doing across the country, all their political efforts and PR shams boil down to self-interest and higher profit shares. — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have helped create one of the worst governors who has allowed the hazardous pollution of our rivers and waterways, not to mention how they’ve been behind the attacks on working families in the state.

The Koch network has invested heavily in lobbying to directly assert their influence on the state’s policy agenda. Since 2010, the Kochs have spent $2.6 million lobbying on dozens of pieces of legislation to further their corporate agenda at the expense of Wisconsin’s workers, environment, students, and families.

In addition, the Koch astroturf network has been on the frontlines fighting for some of the most regressive political efforts in Wisconsin in recent years. They pushed for devastating anti-labor efforts including the silencing of workers, eliminating the prevailing wage, and preventing a raise of the minimum wage.

The Koch-backed ALEC created dozens of pieces of boilerplate legislation, many of which have been incorporated into Walker’s radical education agenda. They fought tooth and nail to turn the state against healthcare reform and block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And finally, to protect the full profit-generating capacity of their Wisconsin operations, the Kochs have railed against the EPA and renewable energy development while simultaneously praising the Keystone pipeline and open pit iron mining. Absolutely nothing in Wisconsin could deter the Kochs from their selfish objectives.

Their agenda proves that they are willing to compromise the lives and livelihoods of Wisconsin families, and their record shows that they would even stoop so low as to malign Native Americans and target minority and student voters in fraudulent schemes to achieve their full objectives.

The Kochs are cementing their imprint in Wisconsin this year.

“Already, they have given more than $500,000 to Speaker Ryan’s leadership PAC and are providing cover for Sen. Ron Johnson, who has benefited from millions spent on ads and contributions from the Koch network for his hotly-contested reelection bid. Their investment this year will only help Scott Walker who has announced he will seek a third term as governor.” — — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

Read the report.

Hard Hats for Hillary: Clinton to roll out $275 billion infrastructure plan to create jobs

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton plans to make job creation the focus of her campaign over the next month, beginning with a $275 billion infrastructure spending plan that will be released this week.

Clinton’s plan to increase the federal government’s spending on infrastructure by $275 billion over the next five years will be fully paid for by changing how businesses are taxed, a campaign aide said, without providing any details.

Of the total amount, $25 billion will be earmarked for an infrastructure bank. Clinton’s campaign estimates her proposals could also encourage private investment that, along with government spending, would inject a total of $500 billion into rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, buildings and other structures.

“My jobs plan starts with investing in infrastructure,” Clinton said on Sunday at the launch of “Hard Hats for Hillary” in Boston, “not just because infrastructure jobs are good-paying jobs, though they are, and not just because we desperately need to invest in building our future again, which we do, but because investing in infrastructure makes our economy more productive and competitive across the board.”

The hard hats group is made up of union workers in skilled trades such as carpentry who support Clinton’s campaign.

Clinton’s campaign cited a recent study that showed the median wages for infrastructure workers, at $38,810 per year, were several thousand dollars higher than the national median  for all workers.

Clinton’s emphasis on jobs, and infrastructure in particular, is a move to woo working-class voters, who will be critical in the general election in November 2016.

Infrastructure spending is favored by Democrats to spur job growth. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is Clinton’s chief rival for their party’s nomination, has suggested a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. In President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget, he proposed $478 billion for a six-year surface transportation proposal.

In Boston, Clinton noted the construction industry was hit hard during the financial recession and promised to rebuild “ladders of opportunity available to anybody who is willing to work hard” so workers can enter the middle class.

For more on the 2016 U.S. presidential race and to learn about the undecided voters who determine elections, visit the Reuters website. (here: http://www.reuters.com/election2016/the-undecided/).

Census: Income, poverty numbers stay just about the same

The wallets of America’s middle class and poorest aren’t seeing any extra money, the U.S. Census reported this month, a financial stagnation experts say may be fueling political dissent this campaign season.

The Census Bureau, in its annual look at poverty and income in the United States, said both the country’s median income and poverty rate were statistically unchanged in 2014 from the previous year.

Median income — the point where half of the households have income below it and half have income above it —  showed no statistically significant change, despite the small drop to $53,700 in 2014 from 2013’s $54,500. Median income is a broad measure of the economic health of the middle class.

The poverty rate also showed no statistically significant change. In 2014, the poverty rate in the United States was 14.8 percent, which was the same as in 2013. The poverty rate had dropped in 2013 from 15 percent in 2012, the first such drop since 2006.

There were 46.7 million people in poverty, which is also a statistically similar number from the previous four years. In 2014, a family with two adults and two children was categorized as in poverty if their income was less than $24,008.

Census officials said they weren’t surprised by the flat numbers. “It’s not unusual for it not to go down two years in a row,” said Trudi J. Renwick, chief of the Poverty Statistics Branch in the bureau’s Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division.

The White House focused on the fact that some of the numbers increased, though census officials noted the change was not significant. “Real median income for family households rose $408 in 2014, while real median income for non-family households also rose but overall median household income declined,” administration officials said in a news release.

Republicans argued that the stagnating numbers reveal a need for change to the country’s welfare programs.

“Our current approach to fighting poverty, though well-intended, is failing too many Americans,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. “This disappointing data, five years into an economic recovery, underscores the need for a new effort to modernize our country’s safety net programs.”

The latest numbers will feed into the 2016 political debate, with both parties trying to position themselves as advocates for the middle class.

The numbers may explain some of the political furor going on in the country, said Lawrence Mishel, president and CEO of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “Anyone wondering why people in this country are feeling so ornery need look no further than this report,” Mishel said. “Wages have been broadly stagnant for a dozen years and median household income peaked in 1999.”

The Census report also showed that the number of uninsured Americans dropped in 2014, as the big coverage expansion in President Barack Obama’s law took effect. The share of the population uninsured the whole year was 10.4 percent, or 33 million people. When compared to 2013, nearly 9 million people gained coverage. A recent government survey that includes data from the first three months of this year shows that the uninsured rate continued to fall in 2015.

The report also said:

• Asian households had the highest median income in the United States at $74,300 in 2014. The median income for non-Hispanic white households was $60,300, for black households $35,400 and Hispanic households $42,500. The median income for white households decreased by 1.7 percent between 2013 and 2014, while there was no statistically significant change for black, Asian, and Hispanic households.

• The 2014 median earning of men was $50,400, while the median earning for women was $39,600. Neither number was statistically different from 2013.

• The median income of households maintained by the foreign-born increased 4.3 percent while the median income of households maintained by a native-born person declined 2.3 percent. The income of naturalized citizens and noncitizens were not statistically different from the year before.

• The number of men and women working full-time, year-round jobs increased by 1.2 million and 1.6 million, respectively, between 2013 and 2014. Census officials said the change suggested a shift from part-time, part-year work status to full-time, year-round employment.

2015: The in-between year

The two most influential dates in 2015 politics likely will prove to be Tuesdays — Nov. 4, 2014, and Nov. 8, 2016.

The first date, of course, is that of the 2014 midterm election, when the GOP captured its largest majority in nearly a century — 54 seats in the U.S. Senate, 246 seats in the U.S. House, 31 governorships and 68 state legislative chambers.

The second date, of course, is that of the next presidential election, certain to be a blockbuster for the nation’s major parties and, with political discontent deepening on the left and the right, possibly a whopper of an opportunity for a third-party or independent candidate.

The stakes in the next federal election and the results of the midterm will influence how politicians deal with — or don’t deal with — a range of issues from the U.S. Capitol to the state capitols over the next 12 months.

The Republican National Committee, in a “How We Did It” memo released after the midterm, declared an obvious victory and said the results revealed “a rejection of the policies and candidates supported by President Obama and Hillary Clinton” — note the reference to the Democrat’s most popular possible presidential candidate.

Exit polling and support for progressive ballot initiatives — binding and non-binding — disprove the conservative claims of a mandate from the midterm. Instead, the polls show the vote had less to do with party policy and were more about corporate investment in elections, dissatisfaction with the president’s leadership and concern for the economy.

Still, in 2015, look for conservatives at the state and federal levels to cite the midterm results as a mandate to weaken the federal Affordable Care Act, rollback or hold back immigration reform, punch loopholes in non-discrimination protections, advance anti-labor legislation and push anti-environmental proposals while downplaying or denying climate change.

And look for Democratic leaders to challenge the GOP while wrestling within the party over moderation versus liberalism — and waiting for their presidential candidate(s) to take the field.

A glance at some of the battles in the coming bridge year…

ENVIRONMENT: Expect Republicans, whose campaigns in 2014 were flush with cash from oil and gas interests, to attempt to fast-track exports of U.S. fossil fuels, roll back investments in renewable energy, halt creation of wilderness areas, open the Atlantic to oil and gas drilling, work to approve the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline and move to block the Environmental Protection Agency rule to reduce greenhouse emissions from power plants.

In early December, several hundred conservative lawmakers assembled in Washington, D.C., for a summit presented by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing national group of businesses and politicians dedicated to “limited government, free markets and federalism.” The purpose of the summit was to set policy and promote model bills for 2015 and 2016.

“Not a single item on ALEC’s agenda would reduce pollution or protect the environment,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “They only work to reduce safeguards and protect the polluters.”

ALEC’s agenda on the environment includes a push to eliminate the federal EPA and cut the federal environmental protection budget by 75 percent, a drive to weaken the Clean Air Act, a proposal to expand oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, a model bill to block state participation in the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, and a model measure that would require state-based science advisory boards to provide consensus on questions posed by legislators or the governor.

IMMIGRATION: The fight in 2015 will be over the president’s recent executive action to protect about 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation. The New Year arrives with the administration facing lawsuits filed by Republican governors in 17 states, including Gov. Scott Walker, seeking to block Obama’s reforms.

“Because of our shared concerns, at my direction, Wisconsin joined with governors and attorneys general from 17 other states in a lawsuit to block the president’s unilateral action to change the law outside of the legislative process,” Walker said in a statement.

He added that the fight is about the rule of law, not immigration.

His critics, however, said the lawsuit is about immigration and political grandstanding.

“Gov. Walker signing onto this lawsuit to block executive action by the president on immigration reform, while disappointing, is not surprising,” said state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee. “This strikes me as another conservative bandwagon initiative that the governor is jumping on to improve his national credentials and profile amongst the far-right Republican base he will try to court as he runs for president.”

In Congress, Republicans are organizing to push back on the president’s reforms while possibly advancing narrow initiatives to expand visas for high-tech workers, establish a mandatory system for businesses to verify work eligibility and create an exit-visa registry.

JOBS: In early January, progressive politicians and labor leaders plan to gather in D.C. for a national summit on wages, an urgent meeting called by the AFL-CIO and featuring a keynote address by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who recently has softened her “no” on a run for the White House. The summit’s goal is to “lay claim to a bold progressive strategy as the new year begins,” said AFL-CIO president Trumka.

Warren said, “Hardworking people across the country deserve to earn fair and decent wages so they can build a better future for themselves and for their kids.” She added that the summit “will give us a chance to ramp up our efforts to grow opportunities for America’s working families and strengthen our middle class.”

While progressives will focus on initiatives to raise workers’ wages and safeguard organizing rights, conservatives will be pushing initiatives aimed at weakening unions and keeping wages low.

Within a month of the midterm election, Republicans in at least five states — Wisconsin, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio and Missouri — announced plans to push so-called right-to-work bills in 2015.

In Wisconsin, the newly formed group Wisconsin Right to Work, led by an activist who is the state director for the corporate-right group Americans for Prosperity, will lobby for a bill that state Rep. Chris Kapenga intends to introduce.

Walker said during his re-election campaign that such legislation is not a priority, and he has since characterized the bill as a “distraction.” However, the governor has not said whether he would sign a right-to-work bill if one reached his desk.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said, “So-called ‘right-to-work’ (laws) mean fewer Wisconsin jobs, not more. Right-to-work is a policy that attacks Wisconsin workers, our wages, our safety on the job and our middle class. Right-to-work is nothing more than an attempt by corporate special interests to drive down wages and erode the middle class.”

HEALTH CARE: Americans still share more negative attitudes than positive feelings about the federal Affordable Care Act, specifically the health-care marketplace, where many are finding higher premiums than last year.

Some consumers also are finding that misleading or confusing information provided when the marketplace first opened led them to overestimate tax credits for the first year of premiums, which means they’re looking at paying back some money when they file their income tax returns in the spring or winter of 2015.

The credits are the focus of a case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in 2015. The question before the court: Does the Affordable Care Act only provide tax credits through state-run marketplaces — there are only 16 — and not the federal marketplace, which consumers are using in 34 states, including Wisconsin.

The dispute is over four words in the Affordable Care Act — “established by the State” — in reference to the credits applied to premiums purchased in a marketplace.

The case was brought by right-wing opponents of Obamacare and a ruling from the high court that only consumers using the state exchanges can take advantage of the tax credits could be catastrophic for the ACA. Many more Americans would find they can’t afford insurance that the law mandates they purchase.

EQUALITY: Consecutive legal victories, especially in the federal courts, have to some degree made politicians inconsequential in the fight over marriage equality. Governors and attorneys general, including Scott Walker and J.B. Van Hollen, sought to defend anti-gay constitutional amendments and laws against same-sex marriage in 2014, but they failed at nearly every turn.

In early January, Florida will become the next state to recognize same-sex marriage — unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes. Marriage equality advocates and foes aren’t expecting that to happen, but the high court is expected to take up same-sex marriage in 2015, with a once-and-for-all decision likely in late June. The justices could hear one or more of the cases from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee or Kentucky or perhaps one of the cases still before an appeals court.

U.S. chamber largest overall spender of dark money in midterms

A report from Public Citizen released on Oct. 31 shows that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is both the largest overall spender in the 2014 congressional elections among outside groups that do not disclose their contributors and the largest such spender in 28 of the 35 races in which it has gotten involved.

The study, “The Dark Side of Citizens United,” shows that the chamber has gotten invovled in 16 of the 20 congressional races that have seen the most outside spending for the 2014 midterms. The chamber, according to the report, has spent an average of $908,000 per race. 

Nearly all the chamber’s spending — about $31 million out of $32 million — has gone either to support Republicans or to oppose their Democratic opponents. The rest of the money was spent to oppose a handful of Republicans in primaries.

“When large corporations decide they want to get their own candidates into office but they don’t want to be seen doing it, they call the U.S. Chamber,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, which houses U.S. Chamber Watch. “These politicians then push for anti-environmental, anti-consumer, and anti-health policies and priorities that hurt everyday Americans.”

“We know that the chamber gets most of its money from just a handful of large donors,” said Sam Jewler, communications officer for U.S. Chamber Watch. “The policies its chosen candidates pursue will not represent Main Street, but will represent the agendas of a small number of very powerful companies that may prefer secretly buying influence over competing or innovating.”

As of Oct. 25, the chamber had reported spending $31.8 million to influence this year’s congressional elections.

Its nearest competitor, Crossroads GPS, had spent $23.5 million.

The third-place group, the League of Conservation Voters, had spent less than $9.5 million.

Cronyism has consequences

Unfortunately, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it’s disastrous when our leaders assign friends or financial supporters to key positions for which they’re wholly unqualified. Remember Michael D. Brown, who served as under secretary of emergency preparedness and response in George W. Bush’s administration? A Bush crony, he wasn’t even prepared to handle a traffic jam. His faltering response to Katrina amplified its devastation. Bush’s frat-boy shoutout to Brown as alligators swam the streets of New Orleans feasting on the bloated corpses of Katrina’s victims  — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — ensured Brown a prominent place in crony history. 

Forbes Magazine quoted Ayn Rand about cronyism in an article that blasted the more egregious examples in Barack Obama’s administration. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand warns that your society is in trouble “when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors — when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work.”

Gov. Scott Walker must have missed that passage.

Walker claims to be fiercely opposed to government spending. He’s turned down billions of federal dollars and thousands of good jobs to prove it. He’s willing to make his citizens suffer in order to avoid what he calls government dependency and waste.

Apparently, that doesn’t apply to his friends.

In this issue, we publish yet another story about Walker appointing a longtime associate — one who’s hovered close to some of his worst scandals — to head communications for the University of Wisconsin System. Jim Villa’s professional background is in real estate and in handling messy and questionable campaign shenanigans, not in higher education. The position Walker rewarded him with pays $178,000 a year and did not even exist before Villa was hired. It appears to have been created for a loyal staffer who’s kept his mouth shut through all the Walker investigations.

Walker turned down $4 billion for Medicare expansion to wean Wisconsin residents off what he called “generational dependence on government.” Apparently Walker has no such concerns for Villa’s dependency — or that of the many other cronies he’s rewarded.

Walker appointed the 27-year-old son of a lobbyist to head the Commerce Department’s division that oversees environmental and regulatory matters as well as a staff of dozens. The young man had no college degree and little management experience, but he would have been paid $81,500 if Walker had not been shamed into revoking the decision.

Walker appointed unqualified crony Ryan Murray as chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission. That agency has not only failed abysmally at creating jobs, but also has lost millions of taxpayer dollars. Millions literally disappeared while Murray was in charge — more than the budget of some of the programs Walker has cut in the name of thrift. No charges have been filed and the mainstream pro-Walker media has forgotten about it, which is odd considering their editorial boards rail about nothing but deficits and government spending.

Walker’s crony list goes on and on. Last year, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group, named Walker the sixth worst governor in the nation largely due to the audacious extent of his cronyism.

Getting rid of Walker will not end cronyism, which festers like a cancer in both parties. But it’s a virtual crime that all candidates should be held accountable for at the ballot box. 

IRS pushes to rein in tax-exempt political groups

The Obama administration is trying to rein in the use of tax-exempt groups for political campaigning.

The effort launched this week is an attempt to reduce the role of loosely regulated big-money political outfits like GOP political guru Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the pro-Obama Priorities USA.

The Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department said they want to prohibit such groups from using “candidate-related political activity” like running ads, registering voters or distributing campaign literature as activities that qualify them to be tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations.

The agencies say there will be a lengthy comment period before any regulations will be finalized. That means groups like Crossroads and Priorities USA will be able to collect millions of dollars from anonymous donors ahead of next year’s campaign.

“This proposed guidance is a first critical step toward creating clear-cut definitions of political activity by tax-exempt social welfare organizations,” said Mark Mazur, treasury assistant secretary for tax policy. “We are committed to getting this right before issuing final guidance that may affect a broad group of organizations. It will take time to work through the regulatory process and carefully consider all public feedback as we strive to ensure that the standards for tax-exemption are clear and can be applied consistently.”

Organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, such groups are able to raise millions of dollars to influence elections. But they can also be small-scale tea party groups, many of which say they were harassed by the IRS after seeking tax exempt status.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., was skeptical of the administration’s move.

“There continues to be an ongoing investigation, with many documents yet to be uncovered, into how the IRS systematically targeted and abused conservative-leaning groups,” he said. “This smacks of the administration trying to shut down potential critics.”

Administration allies say the proposed rules would clear up confusion over which organizations qualify for tax-exempt status.

“The IRS should have never been in the business of trying to determine if 501(c)(4) organizations were involved primarily in social welfare or political activity, and this confusion led to the overly intrusive measures by the IRS that stirred so much controversy,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision lifted the limits on donations by labor unions and companies to 501(c)(4) groups, allowing Crossroads, the largest of them, to raise large sums outside the limits that apply to candidates’ campaigns and traditional party committees.

“Enormous abuses have taken place under the current rules, which have allowed groups largely devoted to campaign activities to operate as nonprofit groups in order to keep secret the donors funding their campaign activities,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates limits on money in politics.

Under current rules, social welfare organizations may conduct some political work as long as it’s not their main activity. The proposed new rules would block such things as running ads that “expressly advocate for a clearly identified political candidate or candidates of a political party” as fulfilling their tax-exempt mission. And ads that simply mention a politician to, for instance, urge him or her to vote a certain way couldn’t be run 60 days before a general election of 30 days before a primary.

The rules also would limit voter drives and voter registration efforts and distribution of literature.

The idea behind the new regulations is to simplify the rules of the road going forward, proponents say. The current rules are confusing and prone to abuse, critics say.

Treasury and the IRS don’t have a proposal yet about what proportion of a 501(c)(4) group’s activities must promote social welfare and are soliciting input. In other words, they don’t have a recommendation as to what percentage of a group’s time and money can be spent on politics.

Some of the outside groups that could be affected by the proposal, including Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA, did not have any initial reaction to the announcement. The groups are expected to weigh in on the rulemaking as it proceeds.

Any changes to the regulations likely would not affect the 2014 elections because of legal challenges but the rule changes could shape the next presidential election, said Kenneth Gross, a campaign finance attorney and former head of enforcement for the Federal Election Commission.

“Brightening what are now blurred lines – what is political activity – is not only useful but necessary to have some kind of clarity to a vehicle that has been used to the tune of millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

But Gross cautioned that “this is a long and winding road before anything is in ink.”

House Budget Committee vote today on Paul Ryan’s plan

House Republicans are sticking to their guns on the federal budget, promising to try to repeal so-called Obamacare, cut domestic programs from Medicaid to college grants and require future Medicare patients to bear more of the program’s cost.

The point is to prove it’s possible to balance the budget within 10 years by simply cutting spending and avoiding further tax hikes, even as the fiscal blueprint released on March 12 by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was declared dead on arrival with the White House and Democrats controlling the Senate.

Senate Democrats promise to offer a counterproposal on March 13 with higher spending on domestic programs and additional tax hikes on top of the higher rates imposed on top-bracket earners in January. It will, in turn, arrive as a dead letter in the GOP-controlled House.

At issue in the congressional budget process, one that is arcane and partisan both – and unlikely to illustrate a path forward in a gridlocked Washington. At stake are so-called budget resolutions, which are nonbinding measures that have the potential to stake out parameters for follow-up legislation cutting spending and rewriting the complex U.S. tax code.

But this year’s dueling GOP and Democratic budget proposals are more about defining political differences –as if last year’s elections didn’t do enough of that – than charting a path forward toward a solution. Congressional budgets often simply state party positions, and invariably are partisan endeavors.

Ryan, who became a national GOP figure as the losing vice presidential nominee last year, has for now settled back into his wonkish role as Budget Committee chairman and chief tutor for dozens of relatively junior Republicans. He’s also armed with a full battery of budget bromides.

“We’re introducing a budget that balances in 10 years – without raising taxes,” Ryan said in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “How do we do it? We stop spending money the government doesn’t have.” All told, Ryan’s plan would slash $4.6 trillion in spending over the coming decade.

“On the current path, we’ll spend $46 trillion over the next 10 years. Under our proposal, we’ll spend $41 trillion,” Ryan said. “On the current path, spending will increase by 5 percent each year. Under our proposal, it will increase by 3.4 percent.”

The House Budget Committee has scheduled a vote on the measure March 13, and the Senate Budget panel is slated to vote on March 14 on rival legislation by new Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., who promises new tax revenues but few cuts from domestic programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“We are working towards fair and balanced, which is what the American public has said time and time again that they want,” Murray said. “We need to make sure that everybody participates in getting us to a budget that deals with our debt and our deficit responsibly.”

For his part, Ryan has resurrected a controversial Medicare proposal that replaces traditional Medicare for those currently under 55 with a government subsidy to buy health insurance on the open market. Critics of the plan say the subsidies won’t grow with inflation fast enough and would shove thousands of dollars in higher premiums onto seniors before very long.

The House GOP plan again proposes sharp cuts to Medicaid, tighter food stamp eligibility rules and more than $1 trillion in savings over a decade by repealing Obama’s signature overhaul of the U.S. health care system. It seeks to preserve the Pentagon budget, but only at the expense of proposing domestic agency budgets that may prove too low for GOP moderates and the pragmatists atop the Appropriations Committee responsible for guiding them into law.

Even as it proposes repealing Obamacare, the Ryan plan banks more than $700 billion in the health care law’s cuts to Medicare providers over a decade – just as more than $600 billion in tax hikes on the wealthy enacted in January make it easier for Ryan’s budget to predict balance.

At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about Obama’s failure to submit a budget on time.

“The president has always believed that deficit reduction is not a goal unto itself,” Carney said. “The proposals he’s put forward keep the number one objective in mind, which is economic growth and job creation, not deficit reduction solely for the purpose of reducing the deficit.”