Dismal Math and Science Scores for American Students

According to The Washington Post, “scores in math, reading and science posted by 15-year-olds in the United States were flat while their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces or countries — soared ahead, according to results of a well-regarded international exam released Tuesday.”

“The [Program for International Student Assessment] test scores offer fresh evidence for those who argue that the United States is losing ground to competitors in the global market and others who say a decade’s worth of school reform has done little to improve educational outcomes.”

Top performer, Shanghai, “has catapulted to the top in PISA over the past decade after focusing on teacher preparation and investing in its most challenging classrooms, among other things.”

The American Federation of Teachers: “While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools — has failed to improve the quality of American public education.”

113th Congress is Least Productive Ever

The New York Times reports that “the 113th Congress has passed all of 55 laws so far this year, seven fewer at this point than the 112th Congress — the least productive Congress ever.”

The reason: “Many Republicans believe they are getting such good traction from their attacks on President Obama’s stumbling health care law that they feel less compelled to produce results. Any public fight over legislative compromises could take away from the focus Republicans have kept on the health care law.”

“Major bills passed by the Senate with bipartisan majorities to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, update farm programs, allow states to collect sales taxes from online retailers and protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from workplace discrimination have been blocked from votes in the House — where members of both parties say they could pass.”

“Lawmakers and aides from both parties say a modest budget deal is possible [but] the farm bill is a more difficult lift.”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.): “If they want my vote, they ought to stop beating up on poor people … I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have a farm bill that doesn’t increase hunger in America.”

On the Obamacare To-Do List

TPM provides a list of Obamacare ‘to-do’ items:

  • Fix the Back-end of Healthcare.gov: These could be big problems if they persist, leaving people thinking they’ve enrolled in coverage when they haven’t.
  • Roll Out the Spanish Language Version: Latinos make up a significant portion of the country’s uninsured [and] are among the President’s most dedicated demographic groups.
  • Get the Small-Business Marketplace Ready for 2015: More than 20 million uninsured people are part of the small business community.
  • Prepare to Enforce the Employer Mandate in 2015: A million fewer people will be covered through their employer because of the delay and the government will lose $12 million in revenue, mostly because it won’t be collecting a penalty from companies that don’t comply.
  • Start Getting the Word Out: The public relations side of Obamacare has been notably muted since the disastrous Oct. 1 launch

The Next Thing to Worry About with Obamacare

Now that technical glitches are being addressed, Matthew O’Brien gives us a few more Obamacare worries to add to the list of concerns:

“We’ve moved on from asking whether anyone will even be able to sign up for Obamacare. Now the concern is whether people will actually get the plans they sign up for.”

“The administration has fixed most of Healthcare.gov’s front-end problems, so people can pick a plan. But it hasn’t fixed all of the back-end problems, so insurers can know who has picked what plan. That customer data isn’t always getting through.”

If the last month has taught us anything, it’s that the administration will probably jury-rig some kind of back-end fix that’s just good enough to work … Then the concern will be …whether enough healthy people will buy insurance to keep premiums from spiraling up and up. And we probably won’t know that until open enrollment ends in March, since healthier people tend to procrastinate when it comes to buying coverage.”

Legal Challenges to Obamacare

According to the New York Times, “a fresh wave of legal challenges to the law is playing out in courtrooms as conservative critics — joined by their Republican allies on Capitol Hill — make the case that Mr. Obama has overstepped his authority in applying it.”

At the heart of most of these challenges is the claim that the Affordable Care Act “does not grant the IRS authority to provide tax credits or subsidies to people who buy insurance through the federal exchange.”

“At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee will convene a hearing to examine … the legal theory behind the subsidy cases: that the I.R.S., and by extension, Mr. Obama, ignored the will of Congress, which explicitly allowed tax credits and subsidies only for those buying coverage through state exchanges.”

“The subsidy lawsuits grow out of three years of work by conservative and libertarian theorists … The cases are part of a continuing, multifaceted legal assault on the Affordable Care Act that began with the Supreme Court challenge to the law and shows no signs of abating.”

Economic Growth: Are Democrats Better at It?

Brad Plumer takes note of a recent study on US economic growth by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson: “Since World War II, there’s been a strikingly consistent pattern in American politics: The economy does much better when a Democrat is in the White House.”

“More specifically, since 1947, the U.S. economy has grown at an average real rate of 4.35 percent under Democratic presidents and just 2.54 percent under Republicans.”

Why? “Democrats simply have better economic luck,” explains Blumer.

Blinder and Watston attribute the “large D-R growth gap” to three major factors: oil shocks, productivity growth and consumer confidence.

“Now, this paper is hardly the last word on the subject. As Blinder and Watson note, they can only explain from 46 percent to 62 percent of the difference in growth rates … That means we still don’t have a full answer.”

Lawmakers Say Americans Not Safer

The Hill reports that the leaders of congressional intelligence panels claim: “Americans are in more danger of terrorist attacks than ever before.”

In a CNN interview on Sunday, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that terrorist groups are becoming “more determined” and prolific: “There are more groups than ever and there is huge malevolence out there.”

“The lawmakers argued that questions about the activities of the U.S. intelligence community only damage its ability to thwart these attacks, which, [House Intelligence Committee Chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.)] says, could become smaller and more frequent.”

Rogers: “We’re fighting amongst ourselves …. So we’ve got to shake ourselves out of this pretty soon and understand that our intelligence services are not the bad guys.”

Healthcare.gov November Sign-ups Approach 100,000

Bloomberg reports that “about 100,000 people signed up for health insurance through the online federal exchange last month, a roughly four-fold increase from October.”

“The person who provided the November enrollment figures, said the data points to a steady increase in sign-ups even before major website improvements were completed at the end of November.”

“While far from the original goal, the jump in enrollment may be an encouraging trend for the administration and could signal that consumers are keeping an open mind about the new $1.4 trillion health law amid criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over the site’s technical failures.”

Latest Healthcare.gov Fix May Be Illusory

Conor Friedersdorf cautions that the latest Healthcare.gov fix may be illusory:

“What the report elides by focusing on the consumer experience is the fact that back-end fixes are also needed before masses of Americans can actually buy insurance. It isn’t enough to improve the front end, where consumers create an account and choose a plan. To sign up, their inputs must reach the insurance companies.”

And not addressing “back-end” fixes could cause significant problems for actual enrollment:

“When the Obama Administration states that the site ‘will work smoothly for the vast majority of users,’ do they mean that it will successfully transmit their applications to insurers, resulting in their actually being covered?”

“Or do they just mean that consumers can successfully submit their application, regardless of what happens next? A progress report with more clarity on that point is needed. Does a broken back end render the front-end fix useless to some consumers? The progress report’s narrow focus on the front end leaves me pessimistic.”


Obama Adviser Urges Patience on Obamacare Rollout

The Hill reports that President Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, said on ABC’s This Week, “it may be years until ObamaCare is working ‘really well,’ [adding] that ObamaCare was designed to be implemented by the states.”

Plouffe: “And in most of the states [it] is going quite well. You talked about Medicaid expansion. I think it’s just a fact, and it may take until 2017 when this president leaves office, you’re going to see almost every state in this country running their own exchanges eventually and expanding Medicaid. And I think it’ll work really well, then.”

“You see the interest out there … people want healthcare … They’re going to be able to get healthcare.”

Grassroots Campaigns Boost Minimum Wage

Steve Coll explores the “sources of surprise in American politics” surrounding the growing movement at the local level to raise the nation’s minimum wage.

Using as an example the recent success in SeaTac to raise the local minimum wage to $15/hour, Coll argues that “the movement has momentum because most Americans believe that the federal minimum wage—seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, the same as it was in 2009—is too low.”

“In January, President Obama called for raising the federal minimum to nine dollars an hour, and, more recently, he endorsed a target of ten dollars. Yet … intractable Republican opposition in the House has made passage of any legislation in the short term highly unlikely. The gridlock has prompted local wage campaigns such as the one in SeaTac.”

“According to a Gallup poll taken earlier this year, [even] a majority of Republicans favor a minimum wage of nine dollars. That reflects a truth beyond ideology: life on fifteen thousand a year is barely plausible anymore.”

Coll concludes: “a federal minimum wage of ten dollars or more will not solve inequality … Yet it will bring millions of Americans closer to the levels of economic security and disposable income that they knew before the housing bubble burst.”

Will Puerto Rico be the Next Detroit?

The Washington Post takes an in-depth look at Puerto Rico’s deteriorating economy and cautions that “the implications are serious for Americans outside Puerto Rico both because a taxpayer bailout would be expensive and a default would be far more disruptive than Detroit’s record bankruptcy filing in July.”

“The situation is being closely monitored by the White House, which recently named an advisory team to help Puerto Rican officials navigate the crisis.

“The brutal combination of a long recession, a shrinking population and [$70 billion in] debt has left Puerto Rico’s political leaders struggling.”

“The downgrade [of Puerto Rico’s bonds to just above junk status] ignited widespread concern that the island was sliding toward default, which would hurt many investors across the United States. Because of their high yields and exemption from federal, state and local taxes, Puerto Rican bonds are held by three out of four municipal bond mutual funds.”

Puerto Rico’s general obligation bonds are now in danger of being downgraded to junk status, “paralyzing its efforts to dig out from under its mountain of debt, … The federal government could feel pressure to step in with some type of bailout.”