Podesta Appointment Could Signal Trouble for Keystone Pipeline

The Obama administration’s announcement that John Podesta will return to the White House as counselor to the president, “could dim prospects for the Keystone XL pipeline’s approval,” reports Reuters.

Podesta, the chair of the Center for American Progress and a former chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, will advise on energy and climate issues.

In the past he has “aligned himself with environmentalist foes of TransCanada Corp’s 1,200-mile pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude from western Canada to the Gulf Coast.”

“On Wednesday, the White House said Podesta would not get involved in the question of whether to allow Keystone XL because of his well-known opposition to the project.”

But the White House clarified that he was not recusing himself from involvement in the issue: “The word recuse here is not the right word.”

“Last year, he penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal with Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist and Keystone foe, saying cleaner-burning domestic energy sources should take priority over oil sands.”

US-Mexico Deepwater Drilling Included in Budget Deal

“Deepwater oil and gas exploration would be allowed to proceed in parts of the western Gulf of Mexico as part of a budget compromise announced [Tuesday],” reports Bloomberg.

“The measure in the budget deal would also lay out a process for submitting future transboundary hydrocarbon agreements to Congress. It has taken more than a year to finalize the U.S.- Mexico deal because it got caught up in a dispute over” a Dodd-Frank mandate to disclose payments from foreign governments.

The Dodd-Frank waiver that had been included in the House-approved bill was dropped from the final budget deal “as a way to expedite the U.S.-Mexico agreement.”

“The bilateral agreement would remove a moratorium on 1.5 million acres of the western Gulf that has attracted interest from major oil companies.”

The Volcker Rule Has Already Worked

Urging journalists to stop arguing about whether the Volcker Rule is working, Kevin Roose claims that it “already has worked.”

“The goal of the Volcker Rule was never to eliminate risky trading altogether. It was to eliminate the most blatant types of prop trading, and make it easier to examine the other types of trading for evidence of prop-ness.”

“If [a bank] wants to wander into the gray area between prop-trading and market-making (buying assets, holding them until a seller can be found, and pocketing any price appreciation in the meantime), it will just have to justify why it did the trade that way.”

“But the Volcker Rule was never meant to decide those case-by-case judgments. It’s just the mechanism that forces big-bank traders to enter the decision matrix.”

“So while Volcker Rule supporters can hope for tough enforcement in the future, they should be happy with what’s already happened.”

Latest Obamacare Enrollment Report Card Shows Some Progress

ABC News provides the latest headlines from the White House’s Obamacare enrollment numbers covering the period October 1 through November 30:

  • Bottom line number: The White House is touting overall progress since October as 1.2 million people either selecting an individual plan in the marketplace OR being deemed eligible for Medicaid/CHIP.
  • Enrollments picking up pace, but still lagging: November more than doubled that with 259,000 sign-ups.
  • Federal exchange (in 36 states): All told, more than 166,000 people have signed up through the federal exchange.
  • State exchanges (in 14 states plus D.C.): November had 148,000 sign-ups
  • 1.9 million Americans have applied, but not locked in a plan.
  • Fixing erroneous enrollments: The figures released today show that as many as 35,000 Americans who think they successfully enrolled in a plan may actually be in limbo with their insurer due to errors on the federal website’s backend (specifically with the 834 forms).
  • Site traffic: More than 39 million unique visitors to state and federal exchanges since the October 1 launch. Between 12:01 a.m. Monday, Dec. 9, through 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, HealthCare.gov alone saw more than 800,000 visitors per HHS.
  • Medicaid expansion of 803,000 through November 30.

Does Budget Deal Signal a More Productive Congress?

Sarah Binder questions whether the budget deal signals “a return to ‘regular order,’ if not a more productive Congress ahead.”

“Tuesday’s deal is a far cry from normal budgeting.  [Rep. Paul] Ryan (R-Wis) and [Sen. Patty] Murphy (D-Wash) are unlikely to put the deal to the conference committee, given how little time remains for Congress to act.”

“The appropriations process remains badly fractured [and] Congress will make its spending decisions through an omnibus bill that offers lawmakers a take-it-or-leave-it deal.”

“The mini-deal is emblematic of legislative battles in polarized times: Parties come to the table only when the costs of blocking an agreement are too great to shoulder.”

Binder concludes that the current deal is a solution to avoiding catastrophe but not representative of substantive, bi-partisan deal-making:

“So long as lawmakers prefer dividing the pie (splitting differences) to enlarging the pie (crafting “win-win” deals that capitalize on the parties’ divergent priorities), only small potatoes will roast.”

Poll: Views of Obamacare Improve Slightly

According to a new CBS/New York Times poll, “most Americans (58 percent) don’t think the signup for the new health care exchanges is going well, but more than a third – 36 percent — think it is improving.”

Overall views of the health care law improved by 8% (now 39%) from an all-time low of 31% in November, while 50% disapprove.

There was also an improvement in Americans’ views of how the health-care exchange sign-up is going: 16% (11% in November) think it has been going well;  58% (67% in November), think it’s not going well.

“Barack Obama’s job approval rating has risen slightly from an all-time low of 37 percent last month to 42 percent now.”

“In particular, there has been an improvement in the way Americans view the job President Obama is doing handling health care.  While most Americans still disapprove of his handling of it, approval has risen nine points since November, from 32 percent (a record low) to 41 percent today.”

Lawmakers Reach Budget Deal

House and Senate budget negotiators announced a budget deal on Tuesday “that would call for about $1 trillion in federal spending in 2014,” reports The Hill.

“The deal replaces $63 billion in sequester cuts over two years and trims an additional $23 billion in long-term deficits [but] falls far short of the grand budget bargain Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama once envisioned.”

Highlights of the deal:

  • A compromise on pension cuts: Instead of $20 billion in federal pension cuts, it now contains $6 billion for federal employees and $6 billion for military retirees.
  • Higher aviation fees
  • $28 billion in savings from the extension of sequester cuts to Medicare for two years.
  • Several energy provisions, including one that could facilitate significant oil and gas drilling revenue from the Gulf of Mexico.
  • No outcome on the extension of unemployment insurance.
  • It does not contain an increase in the debt ceiling.

“While the agreement was modest in scope, the image of a conservative Republican standing next to a liberal Democrat to announce a compromise carried more significance, at least symbolically, than the specifics of the deal.”

 

General Motors Bailout Costs Taxpayers $10.5 Billion

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the U.S. government sold its last shares in General Motors on Monday, booking a $10.5 billion loss [out of the $49.5 billion spent] but clearing the way for the auto maker to return cash to shareholders and begin wooing consumers alienated by the bailout.”

“That loss is sure to fuel the debate over whether taxpayer money should have been used to put GM and Chrysler Group LLC through government-led bankruptcies in 2009.”

President Obama declared the rescue a success, “pointing to the 372,000 new jobs created in the U.S. auto business over the past five years and the strong profits at the Detroit Three auto makers.”

“The Treasury Department stressed on Monday that the goal of financial-crisis-era program was never to turn a profit.”

Congress Nears Deal on Defense Bill

With the end-of-year deadline looming, House and Senate negotiators appear to have reached an accord on a defense policy bill.

According to The New York Times, “the proposed legislation … stops well short of the more far-reaching changes advocated by many victims and Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who sought to remove military commanders from overseeing the cases and brought considerable attention to the issue this year.”

“House and Senate negotiators turned back Mr. Obama’s renewed push to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, extending a prohibition on the transfer of prisoners to the United States and forbidding the construction of facilities to house them. But they did loosen restrictions on the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to other countries.”

“There was no guarantee that the remaining few days of this session will be smooth for the Pentagon bill, pending nominations or other matters that must be dealt with.”

Obamacare: Low Premiums but Other Costs Could be High

Low premiums are an attractive feature of the policies available in the new insurance exchanges, but other costs could be steep, reports The New York Times.

“Until now, it was almost impossible for people using the federal health care website to see the deductible amounts … But federal officials finally relented last week and added a “window shopping” feature that displays data on deductibles.”

“For policies offered in the federal exchange, as in many states, the annual deductible often tops $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a couple.”

“By contrast … the average deductible in employer-sponsored health plans is $1,135.”

“Cost-sharing reductions” are available through subsidies based on income levels but “the government had not done much to inform people of these potential savings.”

“Many people buying insurance on the federal and state exchanges are expected to qualify for subsidies. But in the first month, for reasons that are not clear, only 30 percent qualified. The others must pay the full premium and will be subject to the full deductible.”

The 'Grand Bargain' is Dead

Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas announce that the upcoming budget deal “is a signal that the age of grand bargains is over.”

“It doesn’t put the nation’s finances on a vastly different path (or even any different path). It doesn’t reform the tax code or overhaul Medicare. It doesn’t include infrastructure spending or chained-CPI. It doesn’t even replace all of sequestration.”

On the positive side, the deal incorporates small changes and “is the work of human hands rather than automatic cuts … And it would be a small but real boost to the economy.”

“What we don’t know is if the age of mini-deals has yet begun.”

East Coast States Appeal to EPA on Cross-State Pollution

“Eight East Coast states will petition EPA today to place stricter air pollution regulations on nine states, mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia,” according to Politico.

“The move is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute between ‘downwind’ states whose air pollution levels remain high in large part because of emissions carried by air currents from more coal-dependent states.”

“The announcement comes just one day before the Supreme Court takes up EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule …  A split appeals court panel in 2012 struck down the rule, saying that the agency had overstepped the authority granted by Congress under the Clean Air Act.”

Washington Post Editorial Board: “This policy is reasonable. The federal government should be refereeing national air pollution problems, particularly those that states can’t be expected to solve on their own.”

But the CAA’s wording is “imprecise… The most rational thing would be for Congress to update the law — not to gut its programs but instead to prescribe neater solutions to the country’s serious pollution problems.”

Congressional Budget Deal Little More Than a Cease-Fire

The Washington Post reports that “the first successful budget accord since 2011 … amounts to little more than a cease-fire.”

“Senior aides familiar with the talks say the emerging agreement aims to partially repeal the sequester and raise agency spending to roughly $1.015 trillion in fiscal 2014 and 2015. That would bring agency budgets up to the target already in place for fiscal 2016.”

“Despite his own ambitious blueprint for shrinking spending, [House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis)] said he would not attempt a big deal, because it would require a ‘grand bargain’ in which Democrats agree to cut safety-net spending in exchange for Republican concessions on taxes.”

“But the deal would do nothing to trim the debt, which is now larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any point in U.S. history except during World War II.”

“Where would that leave the nation’s financial outlook? Not in a particularly good place, budget analysts say … Annual deficits would start growing again in 2016 as the baby-boom generation moves inexorably into retirement. And the debt would again soar.”