Call it authoritarianism

“Blocking an inquiry into the January 6 attack on the Capitol, embracing Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen, making it easier for partisans to tamper with the process of counting votes: These are not the actions of a party committed to the basic idea of open, representative government.

It’s common to call this GOP behavior “anti-democratic,” but the description can only go so far. It tells us what they’re moving America away from, but not where they want to take it. The term “minority rule” is closer, but euphemistic; it puts the Republican actions in the same category as a Supreme Court ruling, countermajoritarian moves inside a democratic framework rather than something fundamentally opposed to it.

It’s worth being clear about this: The GOP has become an authoritarian party pushing an authoritarian policy agenda.”

“When people think of authoritarian governments, they typically think of police states and 20th-century totalitarianism. But “authoritarianism” is actually a broad term, encompassing very different governments united mostly by the fact that they do not transfer power through free and fair elections.”

“competitive authoritarian systems survive in part by convincing citizens that they are living in a democracy. That’s how they maintain their legitimacy and prevent popular uprisings. As such, they do not conduct the kind of obvious sham elections held in places like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria (he won the 2021 contest with 95 percent of the “vote”).

In competitive authoritarianism, the opposition does have some ability to win a bit of power through, well, competition — even if the scope of their possible victories are limited.

It’s a tricky balance for the regime to pull off: rigging elections enough to maintain power indefinitely while still permitting enough democracy that citizens don’t rise up in outrage. Many competitive authoritarian regimes have collapsed under the stress, either transitioning to democracy (like Taiwan) or forcefully repressing the opposition and becoming a more traditional autocracy (like Belarus).”

“Happily, the United States still passes the most basic test of whether a system is democratic: whether the public can vote out its leaders. But it is hard to deny that the Republican Party has begun chipping away at that baseline principle, using the flaws in our political system to entrench their power.”

Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are endangering America’s election workers

“In a speech on voting rights delivered on Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland warned that “the dramatic increase in menacing and violent threats against all manner of state and local election workers” is a threat to the country’s democracy.

Garland is right to be concerned. A new survey released by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 17 percent of local election officials in the United States have faced threats because of their job. The same survey, which was released alongside a larger report by Brennan and the Bipartisan Policy Center on threats to America’s elections, found that nearly a third of these officials — 32 percent — have “felt unsafe because of [their] job as a local election official.”

The survey was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group, and it included interviews with 233 election officials “from across the country.”

The Brennan Center’s survey quantifies a phenomenon that appears to have emerged from former President Donald Trump’s conduct during the 2020 election, and his subsequent defeat in that election. Just hours before Garland pledged to prosecute individuals who target election officials in that same speech, Reuters published a long article cataloging some of the threats faced by election administrators and their families.”

The public option is now a reality in 3 states

“Washington state first approved its public option in 2019 and made it available to consumers for enrollment in 2020. The state now has a year of experience getting the Cascade Care program up and running, and it’s already starting to tinker with the policy design. It’s also offering lessons for Colorado and Nevada (the other state to pass a public option this year, one week before Colorado).

As these states have drawn up their plans, one thing has become clear: The potential value of a public option is in keeping health care costs in check by keeping rates lower than those of private insurance plans. But it still remains to be seen whether a public option can expand health coverage to more people.”

“None of the states offer a “public” option like the one Congress contemplated in 2009, where the government sets up and administers its own health insurance plan.

“None of them are true public options in that sense,” says Katie Keith, who writes about insurance reform for Health Affairs and consulted with states as they developed public option legislation.

Instead, she compares them with public-private partnerships. States are contracting with private companies to create new insurance options to be overseen, if not run, by the government. States would face practical challenges to doing a “true” public option — namely, building up the financial reserves they’d need to pay out claims — so they’re taking another approach wherein private insurance companies will run the public option under rules set by the government.”

“The plans will be sold on the ACA marketplaces, alongside ACA-compliant private insurance. Only people who are eligible for ACA coverage through the individual and small-group market can sign up”

“How much to pay health care providers is the most important issue for any health insurance plan — those prices dictate the premiums charged to customers — and these states are taking divergent approaches in their calculations.”

“One challenge in trying to set lower provider rates is that doctors and hospitals might simply choose not to accept the public option plan. That was Washington’s experience in its first year: Some hospitals refused to contract with the public plan, and since an adequate provider network isn’t possible without a hospital, the plan has only been available in 19 of the state’s 39 counties.

Washington is trying to correct that issue through recently signed legislation that will, among other things, require hospitals in large systems to participate in at least one public option plan. Nevada and Colorado, having seen Washington’s network-adequacy issues, are setting up their own provider participation requirements from the start.”

How Northern Ireland is complicating Biden’s European agenda

“Brexit happened, and the United Kingdom formally left the European Union. But the UK and EU are still arguing over the deal they both signed on the status of Northern Ireland.

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it created the tricky issue of what to do about the land border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is an independent country and part of the EU).

It is no ordinary border. During the decades of bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, that border was heavily militarized, and it served as both a symbol of the strife and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups.

A critical part of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace process that ended the Troubles, involved increasing cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That meant softening the border between the two. As a result, the 310-mile border is practically invisible and completely free from checks and physical infrastructure today.

But once the UK and EU split up, that would become the only land border between the UK and Europe. And with the two sides following different trade rules (that was one of the main points of Brexit), there would need to be some kind of checks put back in place to regulate the goods crossing the border.

So you see the problem: Not having any checkpoints or physical border is seen as critical to maintaining the peace. But the UK’s departure from the EU (and its trading rules) made some sort of customs check necessary.

The UK and the EU ultimately coalesced around a plan that carved out a special status for Northern Ireland. It would leave with the UK but follow many of the EU’s rules, thus keeping that land border open. To achieve this, certain goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain would require checks, just in case they ended up in the EU’s single market. This put a customs border in the Irish Sea — effectively, within the UK.”

“In March, a set of grace periods expired for some provisions, and at the time, the UK just unilaterally extended those deadlines. The EU reminded the UK that, this being a treaty and all, the UK couldn’t just act alone, and so sued them for breaking international law.

Now another set of grace periods is expiring at the end of the month, including a provision related to chilled meats, such as sausages. The UK now needs to start conducting regulatory checks on any chilled meats coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. If the UK doesn’t do them, it would effectively prevent Great Britain from selling its own sausages in Northern Ireland, since those, in theory, might be at risk of entering Ireland, which could mean illicit sausages in the EU single market.

The sausage dilemma is really just the latest fracture between the EU and UK. The EU thinks Boris Johnson’s government isn’t an honest broker and is likely to renege on the protocol once again.

“It’s not about sausages per se, it really is about the fact that an agreement had been entered into, not too long ago,” Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin said. “If there’s consistent, unilateral deviation from that agreement, that clearly undermines the broader relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which is in nobody’s interest.”

Johnson, meanwhile, says he’s defending the territorial and economic integrity of the UK. His government has accused the EU of failing to do anything to minimize the trade frictions, which may leave them no choice but to get rid of the deal entirely. The problem, of course, is that Johnson himself signed up to the rules that he no longer seems to like very much.”

“the protocol has revived tensions in Northern Ireland itself, specifically among the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

The unionists reject any division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (i.e., they support the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and some feel, not totally incorrectly, that they were shunted aside in the Brexit deal. Some unionists are urging the UK to scrap the deal entirely. Northern Ireland saw unrest back in the spring, and there are fears over renewed violence, especially as “marching season” reaches its peak on July 12, when loyalists — extreme unionists — engage in parades and demonstrations.”

“The “sausage wars” may sound silly, but Biden will struggle to create this coalition of democracies to serve as a counterweight to authoritarianism if the EU-UK divorce keeps getting in the way. And it’s just a lot harder to sell the vision that the US and its partners are the ones to trust over China when key members of that group are backing out of agreements or engaging in a trade war.”

What Obamacare achieved — and didn’t

“The Affordable Care Act’s achievements are clear. People who buy insurance in the individual and small-group markets no longer face discrimination for preexisting conditions. Preventive services for Americans with all types of insurance are free. Combine the marketplaces that provide tax subsidies for private coverage and the Medicaid expansions adopted by 38 states (along with a handful of smaller provisions), and the ACA has provided coverage to about 31 million Americans, according to a new estimate from the Biden administration.

After the rocky rollout of HealthCare.gov in 2014 and a few years of soaring premiums, the law’s private marketplaces have stabilized”

“one of the biggest gaps in the ACA itself: Medicaid. The program’s expansion to cover more low-income adults was supposed to be mandatory for all 50 states, a statutory overreach that was scaled back by the Supreme Court, where two liberal justices joined the conservatives to rule that the expansion must be optional.

As a result, 12 states still refuse to expand Medicaid. An estimated 4 million people who would have been covered by the expansion remain uninsured.”

“Some people who purchase private insurance through the law can still face high out-of-pocket costs. Some of the health plans sold on the marketplaces have deductibles as high as $6,000 for an individual or $13,000 for a family — and those are usually the cheapest plans available. Until this year, people who made too much money to qualify for the law’s subsidies had to pay the full cost for their insurance, making it unaffordable for some.”

“one core problem remains: While every other developed country in the world enjoys universal (or near-universal) health coverage, 1 in 10 people living in the United States still don’t have insurance.

That number is lower than it was before 2010, when it was about 17 percent. But it is an embarrassing outlier among our economic peers. Americans also spend more of their own money on their health care than people in almost every other country.”

“America spends more money on health care for worse outcomes than its peer countries, as researchers have noted time and again. On a global index of health care quality and access, the US trails many more socialized systems. Life expectancy has dipped in recent years, ending decades of progress and dropping the US further behind comparable countries.

There is no denying that the high quality of health care available in the United States — for those who can afford it. The US health care industry can undoubtedly be among the most innovative in the world: It was American science that cured hepatitis-C in the last decade. The success of the country’s Covid-19 vaccine development, production and distribution is undeniable.

But prioritizing innovation above all else creates its own problems, leaving US health policy captive to private interests.”

US and Germany have Nord Stream 2 deal, but lack authority to implement it

“A day after the U.S. and Germany announced a deal allowing the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, top officials conceded that neither the White House nor the Chancellery have the authority to implement some of its most crucial components.

As a huge outcry went up from opponents of the Russia-led pipeline project, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that her agreement with President Joe Biden hardly settled their political disagreements, and that much remained uncertain.

“The agreement with the U.S. government does not cement the differences, but it does not overcome all differences either,” Merkel said at a news conference. “The differences remain.” Of the deal, she added: “It is an attempt between the U.S. government and us to set certain conditions that also have to be implemented.

“I am glad that we have succeeded so far,” Merkel continued. “And we also have a lot of tasks ahead.”

Those tasks are hardly small and include overcoming fierce opposition from some members of the United States Congress, persuading some extremely dubious EU countries to get on board, and convincing Russia to liberalize its energy sector, divest itself of the €9.5 billion pipeline, and pay Ukraine some additional €20 billion through 2034 to make up for the loss of gas transit fees — which the new pipeline would effectively render unnecessary.

While some influential Germans — notably former chancellor and current Nord Stream 2 chairman of the board Gerhard Schröder — have been instrumental in securing the pipeline’s completion, Berlin may have little to no influence over Moscow once construction is done and gas is flowing.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat on the foreign relations committee who co-authored U.S. sanctions legislation targeting the pipeline, said she was “skeptical” of the deal given that “the key player at the table — Russia — refuses to play by the rules.””

Biden’s Cuba policy is suddenly in the spotlight

“Cuba’s economic problems largely predate the pandemic, but the coronavirus sharpened them. It decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, a huge slice of the island’s economy. Trump-era sanctions — which the Biden administration has not rolled back — have added to the pressure. And the pandemic itself is taking a toll: Cuba is currently experiencing a record surge in cases and deaths.”

“Biden said the US supports Cuba’s “clarion call for freedom and relief.” Both Democrats and Republicans have backed the protests, but US lawmakers are split over how to approach the demonstrations and acute humanitarian crisis on the island.
Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to roll back Trump’s sanctions on Cuba, but he hasn’t acted. Now, the issue is urgent — both for those who want to see the sanctions gone and for those who feel Biden must keep them in place to continue pressuring the regime.

Biden’s best-laid plans on foreign policy didn’t include Cuba as a priority. But now a crisis in Cuba is here. What the US should do is always a complicated decision, but it’s clear Biden can’t just ignore Cuba.”

“After the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed much of the unrest on the United States, claiming US-backed mercenaries caused the unrest. He called on supporters to also go to the streets and “defend the revolution.” About 100 people were arrested, according to human rights groups.”

“The specter of United States interference remains powerful in Cuba, given, well, a very long history of US intervention there. Fast-forwarding to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, communist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed dictator and began to pursue closer ties with the Soviet Union — an absolute no-no for the US during the Cold War.

The US tried to overthrow Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s, but after that failure, the US strengthened an economic embargo that largely blocked Americans from doing business or trade with Cuba. There have been tweaks on the margins since, but the embargo has long outlasted the Cold War.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama began a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba, and as a result of the process, rolled back some economic restrictions tied to the Cold War-era US embargo and opened up travel.

Trump, as president, vowed to reverse those policies; he did throughout his time in office, significantly stepping up the pressure starting in 2019. He imposed renewed travel restrictions and other sanctions, including designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terror” in his final days in office. A key pillar of Trump’s sanctions severely limited remittances to the island, which cut off another economic spigot.

As experts said, Cuba’s problems are deeper than US sanctions alone, but the Trump-era policy, especially coming during the pandemic, is adding to the strain. And that is creating a dilemma for Washington.”

Alabama governor says ‘it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks’ as pandemic worsens

“Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an impassioned plea for residents of her state to get vaccinated against Covid-19, arguing it was “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the disease’s continued spread.

“I want folks to get vaccinated. That’s the cure. That prevents everything,” Ivey, a Republican, told reporters in Birmingham, Ala., on Thursday.”

“Alabama remains the state with perhaps the lowest vaccination rate in the country, according to the CDC: Only 39.6 percent of its residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, compared to the 48.8 percent of Americans nationally who have gotten their shots.”

“The Delta variant now represents more than 83 percent of the virus circulating in the United States, according to the CDC, and unvaccinated people account for 97 percent of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths nationally.”

Joe Manchin’s sweeping new voting rights proposal, explained

“Manchin did something unexpected: He released a long list of voting reforms that he does support, potentially scrambling the congressional debate over voting rights as the Senate prepares to vote on Democratic leaders’ proposal.

Manchin’s list includes many reforms drawn from the For the People Act as well as from a companion voting rights bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Significantly, Manchin endorsed banning partisan gerrymandering — a high priority for both small-d democrats and large-D Democrats, who want to prevent the GOP from seizing control of the House of Representatives with rigged congressional maps.

Not everything on Manchin’s list will delight his fellow Democrats. He proposes a nationwide voter ID law, for example, although not an especially strict one. And he wants states to be able to engage in “maintenance of voter rolls”— purging names from the state’s list of registered voters — using state and federal documents to identify which voters should be purged.

Manchin would also water down the John Lewis Act, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights protections that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 — though Manchin’s weaker version of the John Lewis Act would still be much more protective of voting rights than current law.

The West Virginia senator’s proposal, in other words, falls short of the dreams of Democratic leaders and voting rights advocates who rallied behind the For the People Act, which passed the House in March. And it is still almost certainly doomed unless Manchin agrees to eliminate the GOP minority’s ability to filibuster voting rights bills — a move Manchin has thus far rejected — or somehow miraculously musters support from 10 Republicans (in addition to all 50 Democrats).”