Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: March 10, 2010


Health Care Reform On The Brink

Although I am on the record as predicting that Congress will get some sort of health care bill to the president’s desk, I am hoping that my prediction is wildly inaccurate. Arguably the most important factor in whether I end up being right or not is the decision being made by the Senate and House parliamentarians:

The White House and Democratic Congressional leaders said Tuesday that they were bracing for a key procedural ruling that could complicate their effort to approve major health care legislation, by requiring President Obama to sign the bill into law before Congress could revise it through an expedited budget process.

An official determination on the matter could come within days from the House and Senate parliamentarians, and could present yet another hurdle for Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders as they try to lock in support from skittish lawmakers in the House.

[...]

The most immediate question seemed to be how parliamentarians would rule on the steps that Democrats must follow. The reconciliation instructions require that committees “report changes in laws” that help meet deficit reduction targets.

Democrats are planning to use budget reconciliation to make the final health care revisions because it circumvents a Republican filibuster in the Senate and can be adopted by a simple majority vote rather than 60-vote supermajority normally required.

Something the parliamentarians need to answer is whether or not the Senate bill, currently sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s office, needs to be either passed by the House and/or signed by the President Obama before the “Reconciliation Bill” can even be considered.

No, No

If the answer to the initial question — does the Senate bill have to pass the House? — is “no,” then the House can get to work drafting the “fixes” they want in the Senate bill, and shaping them to fit within the budgetary confines of the reconciliation process. Since any fix that doesn’t have to do with the budget will be cut from the reconciliation bill, how that bill is drafted will be vitally important to keeping the House “yes” voters together. If, for example, provisions relating to Rep. Stupak’s desire to prevent federal funding of abortion are deemed to be non-budget related, then he and his pro-life group of congressmen will not want to vote for the Senate bill. However, because reconciliation apparently requires that the bill being “fixed” be submitted to the CBO for scoring first, then, in the very least the Senate bill must be passed by the House.

Yes, No

Should the parliamentarians decide that the House must pass the Senate bill, but that the president does not have to sign prior to the reconciliation bill being considered, then the House can basically hold the Senate bill hostage while working on the fixes. It’s not entirely clear how long Pelosi could do this (how soon after voting does she have to enroll the bill? What about the ten-day limits re passage/”pocket veto”?). However, it would enable to the House to get a reconciliation bill through the Senate before sending the Senate bill to Obama, thus ensuring that whatever happens during reconciliation doesn’t undermine any Representative’s “yes” vote.

Yes, Yes

If, instead, the House must both pass the Senate Bill and get it signed by the President before the reconciliation bill can be considered, then health care legislation is likely dead. In this scenario, the House would have to trust the Senate to agree to its fixes, that such fixes get through the reconciliation process, and that Obama signs them into law. Meanwhile, a perfectly functional health care law will be on the books which achieves what the Senate Democrats wanted, and what Obama has staked his entire presidency upon. That would require a great deal of faith.

As I understand it, there are numerous variables in play that could decide which of these scenarios is the winner, so nothing is terribly certain at this point. What is known, is that a favorable parliamentarians’ decision is crucial to ObamaCare becoming law.


SCOTUS Chief grumbles

Chief justice John Roberts is obviously not happy about the SCOTUS being the focus of an attack by the President during the State of the Union address recently and said so in answer to a question after a lecture at the University of Alabama law school:

Responding to a University of Alabama law student’s question, Roberts said anyone was free to criticize the court, and some have an obligation to do so because of their positions.

“So I have no problems with that,” he said. “On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum.

“The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”

Breaking from tradition, Obama criticized the court’s decision that allows corporations and unions to freely spend money to run political ads for or against specific candidates.

The whole point, of course, is the term “breaking from tradition”. What Roberts objects too isn’t the criticism, it’s the manner and place in which the criticism was leveled. I think it is a fair point.

And it is interesting to me that the one who got heat from the press was Justice Alito for mouthing the words “not true” – not Barack Obama for “breaking from tradition”.

My guess is this year’s SOTU may be the last one for some of the justices, at least for the near future:

“I’m not sure why we’re there,” said Roberts, a Republican nominee who joined the court in 2005.

Justice Antonin Scalia once said he no longer goes to the annual speech because the justices “sit there like bumps on a log” in an otherwise highly partisan atmosphere. Six of the nine justices attended Obama’s address.

I’d bet it may be 3 of 9 next year. The Supreme Court isn’t a subordinate branch of government. It is a co-equal branch. I can imagine the outcry from the administration if the court criticized the administration and its policies from the bench. That sort of criticism is traditionally avoided. It also points out that Obama’s confrontational attitude isn’t only reserved for the GOP. And for a post-partisan president who claims to want to change the way business is done in Washington, this isn’t the way to do that.

That said, I wouldn’t want to be representing the administration in the SCOTUS anytime soon on a controversial issue that the court must hear. I would imagine that some on the court will come as close as tradition allows to making the point that two can play this game. Of course the difference will be it won’t be on national TV in prime time.

~McQ


Pimping solar power

There’s no question that alternative and renewable fuels and energy sources are the way to go – if they’re feasible.  Solar, wind, geo-thermal and others all promise clean and renewable energy for our future.  But one of the more irritating things concerning some of those energy sources are the claims that they’re technologically ready for prime time.  Geo-thermal being the exception (but a very minor source), wind and solar aren’t at all where they need to be to provide for the energy needs of the world.  That doesn’t stop the usual suspects from implying they are.

One of the recent stories that helped blunt those sorts of assertions was that of Spain’s attempt to go green.  The result was a loss of jobs and heavy subsidies for the solar power industry.  Well apparently it is time to resurrect Spain and the solar industry and the New York Times obliges:

Although Spain’s long-term goal had been to produce 400 megawatts of electricity from solar panels by 2010, it reached that milestone by the end of 2007.

In 2008 the nation connected 2.5 gigawatts of solar power into its grid, more than quintupling its previous capacity and making it second to Germany, the world leader. But many of the hastily opened plants offered no hope of being cost-competitive with conventional power, being poorly designed or located where sunshine was inadequate, for example.

That’s wonderful, but in 2009, Spain’s power demand declined by 4.3% to 251,305 GWh.  So while solar is a least contributing, it’s not contributing much. And there are still serious and obvious problems with solar power. The example used comes from Florida:

Across 500 acres north of West Palm Beach, the FPL Group utility is assembling a life-size Erector Set of 190,000 shimmering mirrors and thousands of steel pylons that stretch as far as the eye can see. When it is completed by the end of the year, this vast project will be the world’s second-largest solar plant.

But that is not its real novelty. The solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas. It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power in a way that lowers costs and spares the environment.

The fact that they’re experimenting with solar is a good thing. It needs a lot of that. However the fact that this covers 500 acres of land is notable. 500 acres. It is the world’s 2nd largest solar array. And its contribution? At its peak, it will produce 75 megawatts of power. That’s about enough to power 11,000 homes.

Sitting right next too it is a natural gas fired power plant. In fact, that’s the plant on which these panels are grafted. It covers far fewer acres than does the solar array and it produces 3,800 MW of power – enough to power 557,333 homes.

The difference couldn’t be more obvious. Solar is much too inefficient in terms of power provided/land use to be practical as a stand alone source. To produce the same power the gas fired plant does would require an array that covers over 25,000 acres.

And there are other drawbacks as well.

This project is among a handful of innovative hybrid designs meant to use the sun’s power as an adjunct to coal or gas in producing electricity. While other solar projects already use small gas-fired turbines to provide backup power for cloudy days or at night, this is the first time that a conventional plant is being retrofitted with the latest solar technology on such an industrial scale.

The project’s advantages are obvious: electricity generated from the sun will allow FPL to cut natural gas use and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It will provide extra power when it is most needed: when the summer sun is shining, Floridians are cranking up their air-conditioning and electricity demand is at its highest.

The plant also serves as a real-life test on how to reduce the cost of solar power, which remains much more expensive than most other forms of electrical generation. FPL Group, the parent company of Florida Power and Light, expects to cut costs by about 20 percent compared with a stand-alone solar facility, since it does not have to build a new steam turbine or new high-power transmission lines.

“We’d love to tell you that solar power is as economic as fossil fuels, but the reality is that it is not,” Lewis Hay III, FPL’s chairman and chief executive, said on a recent tour of the plant. “We have got to figure out ways to get costs down. As we saw with wind power, a lot has to do with scale.”

In other words, solar has a place as an add on, an adjunct, a gap filler for peak times (if it is sunny), but as a stand alone, the technology is not ready for prime time. As noted most stand-alone solar arrays have small gas-fired turbines to provide backup for cloudy days an night. And those backups are used – a lot.

It also requires heavy government subsidy since the cost of producing solar power is so high (inefficiency due to technology and its limitations on cloudy days and obviously, at night).

The whole point of this is to get real about the alternatives and understand that while everyone would love to see them come into their own as dependable sources of energy that can replace dirtier sources, the technology doesn’t yet exist. Until it does, I’m not at all ready to trade the eye-pollution of acres and acres of solar panels for a few megawatts of power – not when we’re the largest producer of natural gas (the cleanest burning fossil fuel we have) in the world.

When solar is ready (and that means dependable and steady power on the minimum of land) I’m ready to see it deployed. But until then, if it’s going to be pimped, it would be nice if those pimping it would include the good, the bad and the ugly when they talk about it. Of course if they did that, it wouldn’t be pimping, would it?

~McQ


Unemployment: the numbers game

Just as we’ve seen “good news” about the economy claimed in quarters when government spending (“cash for clunkers”) and inventory restocking drove the positive numbers, now we’re being told that a raft of temporary jobs might be a positive sign for the unemployment numbers:

The U.S. Census Bureau expects to add up to 750,000 workers to its payroll by May, a hiring binge that could knock the unemployment rate down by as much as a half-point.

The once-a-decade census is coming at the best possible time for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, who have taken political lumps for more than a year over a jobless rate that stands at 9.7 percent.

Some think the administration will get good news as soon as the next monthly labor report, which will be released the first Friday in April.

Yeah – counting people for the government is not exactly that of which economic powerhouses are made. While it’s temporary good news for those with the short-term jobs, it is not a solution to the overall rate of unemployment, regardless of what it might do to the U-3 percentage of 9.7%.

“This is the best-timed census you could ever dream of,” said Heidi Shierholz, who tracks the labor market at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. She believes the March unemployment report will show the economy added jobs instead of subtracting them.

If it happens, it will be only the second positive-numbers jobs report in more than a year. But in this case, it could lead to further positive job numbers in the months ahead.

Really? How’s that? These are temporary jobs (6 weeks) and part-time to boot (19 hours a week). In other words, in about a month an a half, these jobs go away and the 750,000 that were added to the workforce and will take the unemployment numbers down, will have to be subtracted. But it is clear by Ms. Shierholz’s words that the spin about the dropping unemployment rate driven by these temporary jobs will be fierce and you can expect broad claims to be made concerning future employment that will most likely have no basis in fact.

Right now it is all about the numbers. But their substance will be masked as the “experts” laud these 6 week part-time government jobs which produce better unemployment numbers as indicators that the employment picture is “improving”.  Don’t be fooled.  Do a little subtraction in your head each time the claim is made and you’ll probably be much closer to the real percentage than will the delusional “experts” (they’ll begin terminating the jobs near the end of June).  And remember – until the business climate improves, hiring is not likely to happen.  750,000 temporary government jobs does nothing to improve that climate.

~McQ