A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Guest Host: Frank Sesno
President Barack Obama pushes more young people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Reaction to Janet Yellen’s first press conference as Fed chair. And Toyota agrees to a $1.2 billion settlement with the Justice Department over acceleration defects. A panel of journalists joins guest host Frank Sesno for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.
- David Welna congressional correspondent, NPR.
- John Prideaux Washington correspondent, The Economist.
- Rachel Smolkin managing editor for news, Politico.
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The Justice Department and Toyota reached a record $1.2 billion settlement this week, ending an investigation into the automaker’s mishandling of an accelerator problem. David Welna of NPR said the fine is the biggest the the government has ever imposed on the auto industry. He noted, however, that $1.2 billion is only 2 percent of Toyota’s cash on hand. “It doesn’t hurt their bottom line that much,” Welna said. The probe comes as Justice Department officials are investigating General Motors for failing to recall cars with a faulty ignition. Some say the Toyota settlement could be a model moving forward for the department’s new aggressive approach. But not everyone on the panel agreed. “I suspect politically there’s a reluctance to pile further misery on GM and Detroit, which is already in a pretty tough situation,” John Prideaux of The Economist said.
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MR. FRANK SESNOFrom WAMU and NPR in Washington, I'm Frank Sesno, host of "Planet Forward," director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Monday. President Obama makes an aggressive push to get young people enrolled in health care as the March 31st deadline approaches. Janet Yellen gives her first press conference as Fed chair and raises some eyebrows.
MR. FRANK SESNOAnd Toyota agrees to a $1.2 billion settlement with the Justice Department over acceleration defects. Joining me for the domestic hour of the Friday news round-up is David Welna of NPR. David, good to see you.
MR. DAVID WELNAHi, Frank.
SESNORachel Smolkin of Politico. Rachel?
MS. RACHEL SMOLKINGood to see you.
SESNOAnd John Prideaux of the Economist. Thanks to all of you for being here.
SESNOOkay, I didn't mention it, but it's sort of the incredible, interesting thing in Washington. We actually have some of our top lawmakers who have been put on Vladimir Putin's Russia's sanctions list. This include John Boehner, John McCain, Mary Landrieu, top senators, some of them in tough races. They actually seem to be having fun with this. This is a strange, strange turn of events, David Welna.
WELNAIndeed it is. In fact, I think all of them took it as something of a compliment that they were put on this list. I think Mary Landrieu called it a badge of honor. And a couple of the senators made light of it. John McCain said that this meant that he would not be vacation with his family in Siberia this summer. He'd have to sell his Gazprom stocks and take his money out of his secret bank accounts in St. Petersburg. And Dan Coates said he'd have to cancel his family's summer vacation in Siberia.
SESNORachel Smolkin, Mary Landrieu is in a very tough race in Louisiana. And now, she gets to look like she's standing up to the Russian bear. How is what's happening there starting to affect politics here? Or is this just a little side show?
SMOLKINI think at the moment it's a side show. And actually there was a rare moment of bipartisanship yesterday that Vladimir Putin gave to all of us in Washington, allowing the same talking points to come from Democrats and Republicans. So far, at least, the public just has no appetite for the Ukraine story. You can see that anytime you turn on cable news, all the headlines are about the missing plane.
SMOLKINAnd you only get maybe two-minute intervals of Crimea and Ukraine. Now, of course, if the situation continues to escalate, it will look a lot different for domestic politics here at home.
SESNOJohn, Senator Menendez tweeted the following: "If standing up for democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine means I'm sanctioned by Putin, I'll take it. #sanctionedbyputin." So this is developing its own handle.
MR. JOHN PRIDEAUXI think that's right. I think, as you mentioned earlier, there are lots of American politicians in tough races who would absolutely love to be sanctioned by Putin at the moment. These sanctions, though they're not particularly serious, the ones that are placed on American politicians, not many of them, you know, have bank accounts in Moscow or an apartment in St. Petersburg, they follow pretty serious sanctions that have been placed by the U.S. government and the European government on some of Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
MR. JOHN PRIDEAUXAnd those sanctions become a little more interesting, in my view, yesterday, when they're expanded to include the boss of a big oil trading firm called Gunvor. And previously, as a journalist in London, if you wrote that Gunvor had links to the Kremlin, you would have to defend that position in court with some expensive libel lawyers. And now, the White House has come out and said it's true. So that's a bit of kind of victory for investigative journalism.
WELNAI think it's kind of ironic that six of the nine U.S. officials who were banned from traveling to Russia are members of Congress. Of course Congress has so far been unable to agree on anything in reprisal for Russia's incursion into Crimea. And when they come back next week, I expect to have a big fight over sort of extraneous provisions to sanctions, legislation and it could be weeks or possibly even months before they actually agree on doing anything against Russia.
WELNAIn the meantime, even Republicans are calling on President Obama to take the lead and crackdown.
SESNORachel Smolkin, the said package that would provide support to Ukraine's fledgling government has been stalled as David notes. And now we see these sanctions and this back and forth. You know, it used to be said during the Cold War that politics stopped at the water's edge and the water's edge was foreign policy. Is Vladimir Putin digging a new water's edge here?
SMOLKINHe's not digging it by himself. We've seen this in a couple of cases. Remember the Syria situation just a few months ago, we're going to see a lot of infighting and a lot of cross-fighting on this Ukraine sanctions vote. It's going to probably be on the Senate floor all of next week when Congress comes back. It looks like it's going to probably pass in the Senate, but not before there are some fighting and some vocal opposition from Senate Republicans who oppose the IMF language.
SMOLKINAnd then there's no telling what happens after that. There's a big gap between the House bill and the Senate bill and who knows where that ends up.
SESNODoes Barack Obama's expansion of the sanctions package make it easier for Congress to act in some form, John Prideaux?
PRIDEAUXI think it's possible that it makes it a little easier. I mean, you know, the argument that Obama hasn't been tough enough, hasn't stood up to Putin enough, none of it's a little weaker. I think -- I'm not sure it was particularly convincing argument to begin with. But I think it's really important that Congress passes this package. I mean, the U.S. government now has done the sticks. And it's important to do the carrots as well.
PRIDEAUXUkraine's economy is in a real mess. It was run by a plutocracy under Viktor Yanukovych. And there are some quite interesting things came out after Yanukovych fled. A whole bunch of documents were found, which showed quite the extent of the looting that he and his folks had carried out in Ukraine. And the economy there really need some help. The Europeans are doing a little bit.
PRIDEAUXThey just signed an agreement that's become the first step towards Ukraine perhaps eventually joining the European Union. So the Europeans need to their bit economically. But I think, you know, Ukrainians, a lot of them are feeling pretty scared at the moment. And some support from America will be very welcome.
SESNODavid Welna, do you agree with Rachel that, politically, this Ukraine-Russia thing just isn't playing. You're a congressional correspondent. You hang out there all the time and talk to these folks. How is it resonating with them politically? What stakes do they feel?
WELNAI think that lawmakers are paying a lot of attention to what's going on in Ukraine. And I think there's a certain bipartisanship about this despite the backbiting and critical comments we've heard about the White House. That's died off a bit in the past week or so after Crimea actually held its referendum. And I think this is one point where you actually see a certain amount of unity among lawmakers.
WELNAThe problem, as Rachel mentioned, is just that, you know, you get this thing finally through the Senate and then the House is standing firm against a provision having to do with the IMF. House Republicans are very skeptical about the International Monetary Fund as an institution and that the United States as they see diminished role in it and they think it would shrink it even more.
WELNAThat whole fight may end up being played out as part of the congressional response. But I think that the central issue of whether the U.S. should stand up to Russia, there is unanimity about that.
SESNORachel, is there a feeling that President Obama is leading or following? Should he be leading or following on this?
SMOLKINHe's not in a great position to lead the United States Congress on much right now. We have seen him step up the sanctions. We saw yesterday the White House broadening the sanctions and now saying that they will have more bite than the initial round. Also saying that in the future they could do more to put the pressure on various economic sectors, including energy in Russia. So, he's doing what he feels he can at this point and urging Congress to follow.
SMOLKINBut he's not in a great position to great Congress to do anymore than that. And the United States have been in a very reactive position so far every step of the way with Russia and Ukraine.
SESNOLet's turn to another issue that's very much dominating the political conversation here now and that's health care, the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have been talking about repealing and replacing -- repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And there was some movement this week towards replacing. Tell us about the specifics, David, of what might be in a Republican bill.
WELNAWell, it's sort of a wish list of all the things that Republicans have wanted to do over the years. They would like to put limits on medical malpractice suits. They say that would lower expenses for doctors and lead to lower health care costs. They would like to allow people to buy insurance across state lines. And they'd like to have medical saving accounts expanded. These are measures that may help improve the health system.
WELNABut the big question is, how many more people would actually get health insurance coverage who don't have it now were those measures put in place? And I think one of the perils of offering something to replace the Affordable Care Act is that you'd have a lot of comparing and contrasting going on. And I was speaking with a Republican strategist yesterday who said that a big problem for Republicans is that now that the Affordable Care Act has somewhat taken root here and people are...
SESNOFive million people.
WELNAExactly. And more broadly, you know, your dependents under the age of 26 are covered by your insurance. There are no lifetime limits on your coverage. You can't be discriminated against because of preexisting conditions. That's something that applies to just about everybody. That's becoming the status quo. And one of the fears about the Affordable Care Act back when it was being debated in Congress was that it would change the status quo.
WELNANow that it's become the status quo, repeal is changing the status quo and Republicans may find that people are less willing to go along with them on that.
SESNOBut, John Prideaux, there's no indication in any of the polling that I've seen that the overall popularity of the Affordable Care Act has changed very much.
PRIDEAUXNo, it's still really unpopular. And you can see it in a lot of the swing Senate races at the moment. Republicans pushing on outside groups, pushing very hard on Affordable Care Act. They're running this kind of tear-jerking adverts with people who say they've had the coverage taken away from them. That said, if you look at the polling, it does actually say that more people want to kind of tweak this law and improve it than get rid of it altogether.
PRIDEAUXBut I think one of the reasons the Republicans are in such a strong position is that, you know, any change in this area is a bit scary. I've just had my health insurance policy changed by my company. Absolutely nothing to do with Obamacare.
PRIDEAUXI have. But, you know, it required a whole load new complexity and trying to pick new plans. You know, anything that happens in the health care system now, any change -- and of course there's always change. You know, insurance companies always change their policies and so on. Any change now is blamed on Obamacare and Democrats own it. And it's such a sensitive area of people's everyday lives.
PRIDEAUXThat is going to be very tricky until the status quo kind of gets a little bit more better day by day.
SESNOBut I presume you're not going to go out and protest after this because you've been put through this ringer.
PRIDEAUXNo, no, no.
SESNOJournalists are not allowed to do it. Coming up, more of the Friday news round-up. We'll get to your calls and questions. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. My guess on the Friday News Roundup, David Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR, Rachel Smolkin, managing editor for news at Politico and John Prideaux, Washington correspondent for the Economist. We'd like your calls and your comments and questions for our panel, 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at email@example.com or you can go to wamu.org and watch us as we video stream this conversation.
SESNORachel Smolkin, back to you, back on the Affordable Care Act, the Republican's alternatives, is this something that is gaining traction and is going to proceed, or is this something that some Republicans are saying, wait, not so fast on. Let the Democrats twist on this thing all by themselves?
SMOLKINIt's extremely unclear, is the answer to that question. It's not even clear this proposal will ever come to a vote or if it does come to a vote, what will come to a vote, what committee it will go through, who will be involved or really anything else associated with it.
SMOLKINThe Republicans have a political calculation to make here. Obamacare is very unpopular. They are counting on this to be their issue in the midterm elections. They want to retake the Senate. Based on a special election for a Florida House seat, it looks like this is going to be a very potent issue. They never want to over extrapolate from one election but it's making the Republicans feel pretty good.
SMOLKINSo the question is, do they put forward a genuine alternative to President Obama's plan and look like they're not just being obstructionists or do they sort of ride the wave of discontent against Obamacare?
SESNOJohn, for just a moment, the three legs of the stool, as I understand it, for part of the Republican alternative is expanding tax re-savings -- tax -- health savings accounts, two, augmenting federal or state high-risk pools, so bring the high-risk people together, people with preexisting medical conditions. They can seek government with -- insurance with government assistance, and then allowing small businesses to pull together. So there are some teeth to this thing.
PRIDEAUXYeah, that's right, there are some teeth but as has already been said, the Republicans are in a bind on this. They know that being the party of no is a bad thing and they have to make some positive proposals. On the other hand, as soon as they're too specific, Democrats will be able to say, well you may not like Obamacare but look at what these guys are proposing. I mean, as a citizen you'd have to want the Republicans to come out with a clear plan so voters can then choose between them. And, you know, that would be a very fine thing for America's democracy.
PRIDEAUXAs a Republican strategist, I think you'd have to say, you know, don't be specific at all. Just let the Democrats twist in the wind on this.
SESNODavid, you mentioned 5 million people status quo but they're desperately trying to get more people, especially young people, to sign up because they need those younger healthier people in the pool. And it's been really interesting to see what President Obama and the White House are doing to get that message out.
SESNOLeBron James is making -- from Miami Heat is making 30-second ads. The president is going on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." He did this amazing interview between two ferns with Zach Galifianakis the other day. I went on just this morning to check, 3.2 million views on the YouTube channel. We have this remarkable use of free media by the president. Is this clever or just desperate?
WELNAWell, I think that they recognize that the Demographic that they need most to sign up at this point is young people, people up to the age of 35 or so.
SESNOIf you had told me a few years ago that the President of the United States would sit between two ferns with someone like Zach, I would've told you you were dreaming.
WELNAWell, in some ways I think this midterm election is going to be kind of a referendum on the signature issue of his administration, Obamacare. And he has every interest to get out and make sure that you get enough people actually signed up for this coverage to make it work. Now they're up to 5 million. They originally had the goal of 7 million being signed up by March 31, the deadline for doing so. They've dropped that goal to 6 million.
WELNANow looking at what happened in Massachusetts where they had a very similar program under Governor Mitt Romney, people waited until the last couple weeks, and there was a huge surge then. So I think that's what the White House is hoping for. But they're priming the pump by going out and talking this up to young people.
SMOLKINThe Between-Two-Ferns appearance I thought was so striking, just an amazing moment to see the President of the United States sitting there and doing this. And yet...
SESNOIt'd be interesting to know how many listeners of this program have seen that.
SMOLKIN...have seen it, I know. I was a personal first for me to go on and even watch Between Two Ferns, I'll admit.
SMOLKINAnd yet, traffic Tuesday to HealthCare.gov, the day following his appearance was up almost 40 percent. So from that standpoint the White House has accomplished its goal.
SESNOYou know, it's interesting, John, we can laugh about this but this does show how the media landscape has changed, how the communication landscape has changed and how the audience has changed because you've got all these little niches. And so if we want to talk to young people, you got to go onto their turf.
PRIDEAUXYeah, this is the kind of thing that fascinates journalists but it's another example of how this White House used media completely differently to previous presidents. You know, previously you might have had a set piece with the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN or some -- this president much prefers to use sort of new media, less traditional ways to get the message out.
PRIDEAUXThe deadline's really interesting coming up for signing up on Obamacare. The lowest supporters have worried for a while that the penalties that were attached to not signing up basically are not strong enough, and to convince people that they have to sign up by the deadline. And I guess we'll see whether that's true or not.
SESNOAnother topic before we go to the calls and the phones and start hearing from our callers is the White House backing perhaps off its nomination for the new surgeon general of the United States. This is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He says his top priority would be obesity, however he has spoken out against guns. And that has become the lightning rod issue with him. What are the prospects? What are you hearing, Tom Gjelten -- or sorry, David Welna, up on the Hill?
WELNAWell, there has been already a recognition by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that this is a problem in the Senate. This is after the Senate unexpectedly rejected President Obama's nominee to have the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. This is over the nominees' participation in a lawsuit involving a convicted cop killer in Philadelphia. And vulnerable Democrats and even the Democrat from Pennsylvania who isn't so vulnerable, Bob Casey, voted against that nominee.
WELNAThis time it -- those people up for reelection in November are being asked to walk the plank on something that could hurt them a lot. And it involves guns.
SESNOWhat has Murthy actually said about guns?
WELNAWell, he's said that guns are a public health issue and that curbing gun violence is a real issue for health professionals. And in that he's not alone. That's really been the line of the American Medical Association and others.
SMOLKINIt's really an issue though that Democrats from red states don't want to go anywhere near right now. They're having enough problems, especially the ones up for reelection with Obamacare, as we were just discussing. And they want nothing else piled on their plate. It's a real example of the strained relations right now between the White House and Capitol Hill.
SMOLKINAnd also interesting to watch following all the talk about the nuclear option and the changed filibuster rules, now the president is having as many problems from his own party, getting some of these nominees through as he was having previously with the Republicans.
SESNOJohn, as many as ten Democrats now voting -- bolting on this -- considering bolting on this and breaking with the White House.
PRIDEAUXYeah, that's right. And it's another example of why, you know, political polarization is such a big deal in America. I mean, surgeon generals are not meant to be controversial figures. I think George Bush had one confirmed while he was president in the vote in the Senate. It was 98 to zero.
SESNODavid, this is not -- this is the second White House nominee in a row that the Senate Democrats have been balking on. The first one was the Justice Department Civil Rights Division chief.
WELNARight. Yeah, and in fact when the Senate made its rules change on the filibuster regarding all nominations except those for the Supreme Court, you know, the change meant that no longer would there be this 60-vote threshold that would keep a nominee from moving forward. Rather it would be a simple majority that would enable the Senate to go to a final vote. And it seemed at the time this would open the floodgates for a lot of President Obama's nominees who had been stalled in the Senate.
WELNAAnd I think that what the Senate is finding out is that, in fact, there are some nominees who are problematic on both sides of the aisle. And it is not as automatic as Republicans predicted it.
SESNOYou know, with the surgeon general thing, there's a really interesting parallel for those who remember C. Everett Koop. C. Everett Koop was a conservative appointed and approved by a conservative Senate put in by Ronald Reagan. He came in as the AIDS crisis peaked. And he drew the absolute ire of conservatives when he started talking about AIDS as a public health issue.
SESNOAnd I wonder about the difficulty of talking about public health and taking on these very difficult issues when so many of them are politicized. So you have politics colliding with public health. You're the doctor but you're in a political environment. What do we get in a process like this?
WELNAWell, the interesting thing about C. Everett Koop was that he did not -- at least he was not known to have any strong positions regarding AIDS at the time of his nomination. This is something that came out once he was the surgeon general.
SESNONot so with Murthy?
WELNAAnd with Murthy he's out there on the record of having talked about this...
SESNO...opposing assault weapons and things...
WELNAYes, as a nominee talking about guns. And, I mean, as a lot of other doctors have too but I think maybe if there's a lesson in this it might be that if you aspire to a cabinet level position, you better keep your mouth shut about controversial subjects.
SESNOJohn Prideaux, Jay Carney, White House spokesman, says the White House needs to quote "calibrate its approach with respect to Murthy." What's that mean?
PRIDEAUXI think it's the first step to backing out, isn't it? I mean, he's also the -- Vivek Murthy, he's said what he said about gun violence which to many people would seem like a statement to the obvious. I mean, 32,000 people according to CDC data were killed in 2010 or died with guns involved. So that does look rather like a public health issue. He's also somebody who's supported President Obama and supported Obamacare. So I think that doesn't help obviously with Republicans.
PRIDEAUXThat said, it's true, we can't have a situation where anybody who's ever expressed an opinion on anything can't be nominated to a position like this. it seems absurd really.
SESNOThat's one of the Hallmarks of Washington today though. I mean, that really does kind of characterize our politics. Rachel, one last thing before we go to the calls as I mentioned, Fed Chair Janet Yellen, first news conference. She's asked, when do these interest rates change? She says, well, uh, uh, uh, maybe six months and the markets tank. Did she blow it?
SMOLKINShe did not blow it. She had what I would call a small gaff in her first public outing. But also some moments of charm, of being more conversational than her predecessors, using the term shacking up to describe young people staying on with their parents. And even...
SESNOIs this a new economic measure?
SMOLKINThat's right. Exactly. We're going to add that to our monthly reports. Even with this gaff and even with the markets getting a little nervous, they were fine. Again, it was very short-lived anxiety. So really she signaled continuity and that the economy is improving and did what she needed to do on her first time out.
SESNOIt's just one of those blips, one of those things as you face the media. Well, I'm Frank Sesno and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, please do so. Call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook, send us a Tweet or, as we mentioned earlier, go to wamu.org and you can video stream. In fact, I'm looking at the camera now and I'm hoping there are a few people who are doing just that.
SESNODavid Welna, Janet Yellen, economy, politics, how's it all playing right now? People feeling, up on the Hill, this economy is getting better, it's going to change the dynamic of politics in the election or not?
WELNAWell, I think that one thing you see on the hill right now is that the hewn cry over federal deficits has pretty much gone away. And I think that is in part because deficits are actually falling. But also I think there's a sense that the economy, although it's growing very slowly, is growing, the unemployment rate has been dropping. And because Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their hobby horse for the fall campaign, they are not focused that much on the economy. They will pay lip service to the need to create jobs.
WELNABut if you look at the legislation that they have out on the floor, almost everything that they proposed is more of a campaign message rather than something that could realistically make it through the Senate as well.
SESNOSo we've talked about Obamacare and the economy and the fed chair and sanctions. Let's go to the phones now and see what you want to talk about with our panel here, as we do the Friday News Roundup. So John from Pittsburgh, you're on with us. Go ahead, thanks for your question.
JOHNPersonally I think Obamacare there's nothing much wrong with it but I have a personal experience over the last five years. And it has to do with how the hospital system is paid. That is the big problem. What -- you know, we all have the spine and the hip and the legs are joined so it's quite a complex system. So I went to the doctor and I said, I have hip pain on the outside of the hip. And the hip guy, if you know about hips, the pain on the outside is not a hip problem. If you have a hip joint problem it's in the groin.
JOHNSo -- and I didn't know so my primary physician sent me to the hip guy. And the hip guy knew it was not the hip problem. But he said, okay, go and take an X-ray. And, you know, all of us, none of our hips are perfect, you know. So he said, all -- you need an artificial hip, replace the hip, okay. So that was in 2005.
SESNOSo are you saying that this is related to the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare or this has nothing to do with it or is this just your hip?
JOHNNo. It is related in the sense that in the hospital system every surgeon is pressured to be a profit center.
SESNOOkay. Thanks very much. Let's play with this for a minute. The hip bone's connected to...
WELNAHey, well, you know, hospitals were pretty supportive of the Affordable Care Act, unlike doctors and -- because hospitals stand to gain many more patients who will have insurance coverage. In many ways the Affordable Care Act is about health insurance reform. And that's something that I think our caller is wondering, how much of that has actually affected the way hospitals behave.
SESNOWell, John, I think too, if I can take from the caller, first of all what he's saying is these things are all connected. Secondly, he's saying, they are immensely complex. And the complexity in the baffling byzantine maze of the American health care system really does fit that bill.
PRIDEAUXThat's right. And it was complex long before the Affordable Care Act was passed. And I think it just...
SESNODoes the Affordable Care Act make it worse or better?
PRIDEAUXI think it probably adds a little bit to the complexity. I don't think it makes it vastly more complex. I think what's interesting about John and his hips -- I'm sorry he's had trouble with them -- being this problem in American health care for a very long time with the incentive system the way, you know, doctor can get some kind of payments in return for ordering extra tests. And so that's, you know, that's been a problem with health care inflation.
PRIDEAUXThough, actually, interestingly, the health care inflation has come down a bit recently and I think independent of the Affordable Care Act. And second, you know, one of the reasons I suppose why they do this is because it's about getting sued. And so that's where the Republican proposals on curbing medical malpractice suits come in.
SMOLKINI think the complexity of the system is another reason that politically it's going to be easier for Republicans to continue attacking Obamacare than to put forth their own proposal. Because any time they get into the realm of the alternative, you very quickly can ask questions about, well, is that really going to address the complexities of the system?
SESNOComing up, more of your calls and questions for our panel. Please stay with us. I'm Frank Sesno and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane this week. She'll be back on Monday. We're in the midst of our Friday news round-up, looking at domestic and political issues with David Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR. Rachel Smolkin, managing editor for news at Politico, John Prideaux, Washington correspondent for the Economist.
SESNOEmails, questions from the audience. Here's an email from Bill in Florida. "One of your guests said the Republicans were running ads where people talked about the negative impact of Obamacare on their lives. Why didn't you also mentioned that most of these stories have been debunked." Rachel, have most of these stories been debunked?
SMOLKINThe negative impact of Obamacare on people's lives, some of them have been. There was an initial spate of stories. I think we have seen fewer of those as we've moved along a bit in the process. And certainly the bulk of the negative stories that the media have done have been about the botched healthcare.gov website. So as you've seen that settle down, I think the coverage has shifted. And that's something that President Obama in his two ferns appearance was very much emphasizing to people as well.
SESNOI think what Bill was talking about, though, was people who have come on the air and participate in these commercials saying they've lost their coverage or something negative, bad has happened to them as a result of Obamacare.
SMOLKINWell, some of those stories have been debunked. But also, the administration has tried to move to address some of the very real things that were happening to people who were being kicked off their policies.
SESNOSo to that point, David, there's an email from Michael who writes to us, "I read the administration is spending 17 million taxpayer dollars to promote the Affordable Care Act." Is this true?
WELNAI can't confirm the dollar figure. I do know that the administration feels that, in fact, whatever resources it has available to promote this, they aren't enough. We see the president getting a lot of free media. But actually the insurance companies are starting to step up and spend money of their own to promote this. Of course, this all means that they have more paying customers if people sign up. I mean, they seem to be stepping into the bridge there.
SESNOJohn, I'll let you handle this one. Wayne from Florida, in anticipation of the conversation regarding Janet Yellen's press conference. Wayne looked up the Dow Jones for the past month and he says, "Having her Q&A affect the Dow in a negative way seems disingenuous since the Dow had a minor run-up a few days before the market tanked." Right? That's what I said and maybe I was overstating it there. But he said, "It seemed more like a normal minor correction or what I would characterize ups and downs of the market." What does the panel think, John?
PRIDEAUXWell, there are people, journalists who have to try and explain why the market goes up and why the market goes down on a daily basis. And I feel incredibly sorry for them, because it's the last degree of kind of randomness in what happens. And to try and sort of say the market went up, you know, five points and that was because of Y, it's very rarely possible to do that. I mean, sometimes it is but most of the time it's not.
PRIDEAUXI think Wayne's right. The market moves around a certain amount. What was interesting I thought about the market reaction was. At the moment, the markets can't quite decide what they want. In Janet Yellen's press conference there were two things really. One thing was that the economy is getting a little better, which, you know, good news you would have thought and something the markets would be pleased about.
PRIDEAUXOn the other, there was the confirmation that the program of quantity of easing, which the Fed has been running for a while which markets directly think have been sort of pushing up asset prices is coming to an end. So you have good economic news, but the thing that's been keeping the stock market high is going to taper off. So what do you make of that?
SESNOSo a lot of things to calculate, but it should be noted that the market is at or near a record high. To the phones, and Matthew joins us from Flint, MI. Hi, Matthew.
MATTHEWHi. How are you doing?
SESNOGreat. Thanks for calling.
MATTHEWYeah, thanks. I just wanted to make a comment on "Between Two Ferns" segment. I think there's a large disconnect between American politics and young people. We go through high school, we learn how our government works, we learn how the economy works. We graduate and then we start learning how things really work. And it makes us lose faith, I think, when we see our Congress literally so dysfunctional that it can't do a single thing.
SESNOAre you a young person, Matthew?
MATTHEWI'm 24, so I'm kind of in that stage where, like I said, it's kind of where I'm starting to realize it's kind of all about money, you know? And I'm not so sure that our government is any less corrupt than any of these other governments, Russia, Syria, any of these other governments that we see as people here in America, you know, people tolerated. My...
SESNODid you watch the "Between Two Ferns" interview with the president?
MATTHEWYeah. I saw a little bit of that. I've seen almost all of them. I saw a little clip of it, not the entire thing. But my point was, I thought it was brilliant that they did that. I mean, of course, it's a little weird seeing your president on the stage with Zach Galifianakis. But I think young people kind of humanized a politician because these people that are running our country, that are making these decision, it's like -- I'm looking at them and I know a lot of people are looking at them and just saying, like, what the hell are you doing? You know what I mean?
SESNOYeah. And you have a lot of demographic company with that question, let me tell you. And let me turn your comment over to the panel here. Very interesting. And also, let me thank him for listening to this program.
WELNAYes. Well, I think the disillusionment with especially with Congress, which is enjoying its lowest approval ratings in years. They've come up a little bit, but they're pretty much down in the basement still. In some ways, though, I think that Congress is a reflection of the broader reality of this country. That we have a very polarized, politically polarized country. And, you know, the people up on the Hill who are trying to make decisions are feeling a lot of pressure from those constituents also.
WELNAAnd I think that's one of the reasons why we have this sense of stasis or paralysis on the Hill because we have a very divided country.
SESNORachel, it's very interesting what we just heard the caller talk about and the whole question of young people and how they view things and, you know, start to perceive politics. The president himself, in thinking about the midterms, just this past week, he said, in midterms, we get clobbered. And here's what he said, during presidential elections, young people vote, women are more likely to vote.
SESNOBlacks, Hispanics, more likely to vote. He's talking about the need to have these groups on board and show up. And that's going to be very different in the midterms.
SMOLKINAnd remember, these are the groups that helped President Obama get elected twice. the huge turnout from young people, from minorities, from groups that had not voted previously and somehow, in office, he has lost that connection. And we're seeing that...
SESNOSo what are they doing?
SMOLKINSo we see him going on "Between Two Ferns" to try to reestablish it. And I think the comments that were just made show how effective that strategy has the potential to be -- we don't know if it will realize the potential yet or not.
SESNOLet me go back to the phones. And Larry from Huntington, WV. Hi, Larry.
LARRYGood morning. I'm enjoying your show very much.
SESNOWell, thanks for calling in.
LARRYMy question for your panel is, they've been mentioning the five million people who have signed up with the Affordable Care Act. My question is, does anyone know what percentage of those people have been qualified for Medicaid, as in the fully government-granted policies?
SESNOAny idea, folks, off the top of your head how many qualify for Medicaid? Because we have two things going here, right, you have the Affordable Care Act and the health exchanges and then you have the Medicaid, and then you have the rest.
PRIDEAUXI don't think any of us have the data. I'm not sure the government has the data. In any case, it's changing pretty fast.
SMOLKINBut the latest figure is several million. The sign-ups in the federal and state exchanges don't count the several million people who have enrolled in Medicaid. And that's being expanded in about half the states under the health law.
WELNAYeah. I mean, there is a real distinction between the Medicaid and the signees, I guess, for coverage because Medicaid is going to be paid, in large part, virtually all of it by the federal government for several years. And the other people are going to be getting subsidies from the federal government, many of them. And that's all going to have an impact on what the cost of this program is going to be and the kind of risk pools that they're going to be able to form.
WELNAAnd because this is a very disaggregated system, I mean, you have some states running their own exchanges, other states are using the federal exchange. It is hard to have a certain bird's eye view of where it stands at this point.
SESNOCurtis joins us now from New York City. Curtis, go ahead.
CURTISI have a question basically. The question is looking last -- well, I'm looking recently at a lot of stories that are coming out. I saw Ed Snowden on the TED talk this past week, which was fascinating. I saw, you know, and I'm watching I see, like, Obamacare, they're calling the guys from Google and Time magazine says Jeff Stein the guy in the suit, quote/unquote, "isn't in charge anymore."
CURTISThe Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, Dianne Feinstein is fighting the CIA over hacking. Elon Musk versus the ULA state government and utilities in this regulatory sort of battle royal. The technology seems to be the newest player in Washington. And I want to know from you guys that are actually there, how does this change the culture there? Is your culture making room? Is it opening up? Is it ignoring this trend? You know, how are you guys dealing with this?
SESNOCurtis, that is a just terrific question and something that you don't hear much about on the ground here in town. So let me turn it to the reporters who cover it. John, start with you.
PRIDEAUXIt is a very good question. Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have had a, I was going to say, a love-hate relationship but it's really been a hate-hate relationship with Washington for a long time. And their idea really has been, you want to stay as far away from it as possible. You know, innovate and disrupt things, but, you know, don't get involved. I think one of the things that's been very interesting over the last 12 months or so is that the technology industry has begun to look a lot like the other industries in Washington, in the sense that, you know, Google has hired large numbers of lobbyists and so on and so forth.
PRIDEAUXYou know, there's been more of a recognition that the industry needs to get involved in trying to shape the laws, do all the kind of, you know, things that people don't like about Washington, how extremely expensive films on K Street with people on both sides of the aisle on that payroll.
SESNORachel, are they changing the dynamic here, though?
SMOLKINI think they are changing the dynamics, certainly with respect to the media, they are. I think the lobbying aspect, it remains to be seen whether that will really help them get more clout in Washington. But the caller mentioned the Washington Post. I mean, we in the media are very much struggling with or experimenting with the new world and what means. I work at a company that primarily began as an internet company.
SMOLKINBut seeing somebody who's made such advances in technology take over one of the flagship newspapers of our nation and of our city, it brings tremendous potential and excitement and also a lot of questions about the future.
SESNODavid, what about technology's influence -- data's influence in governing, in deciding, in doing the right thing?
WELNAWell, I think that we have a more data-driven government now certainly than we did even 10 years ago. One big issue is the data that the government is collecting, the people are viewing this as a national surveillance state. And I think Silicon Valley especially is alarmed that those people who use internet products are losing confidence that their privacy is going to be secured. And most companies are taking the sides of the consumers and it's pitting them against national security concerns.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our conversation today, Friday news round-up, domestic politics with David Welna, congressional correspondent for NPR. Rachel Smolkin, managing editor for news at Politico, and John Prideaux, Washington correspondent for the Economist. Another topic we haven't talked about, big settlement with Toyota, $1.2 billion with the government.
SESNOHarsh, harsh words from Eric Holder, the attorney general, saying Toyota was involved in a cover-up. David Welna?
WELNAYeah. Toyota neglected to publicly acknowledge that it had a problem with the accelerator in several of its models and its accelerators were getting stuck because of a piece of plastic in the accelerator. And people lost their lives as a consequence. And meanwhile, Toyota was publicly saying, oh, it might be the floor mat that's the problem or it might be the drivers themselves. And this fine that it got, $1.2 billion, it's the biggest that the auto industry has ever gotten, was a real wake-up call.
WELNAThat said, $1.2 billion is only 2 percent of Toyota's cash on hand. They have $60 billion on hand. It doesn't hurt their bottom line that much. There was not one Toyota executive who faced criminal prosecution in this case. Nobody personally is going to pay the price for this.
SESNORachel Smolkin, this also comes just as Congress is taking a hard look at General Motors for all the recalls and the time it took to deal with this ignition problem in the Cobalts and some other -- and other problems with other vehicles. And the CEO is being called to testify to Congress.
SMOLKINThat's the real question is what happens next for GM? And that's the subject on everybody's mind. Eric Holder did not mention GM, but his very tough language about Toyota -- shameful, blatant disregard for the law -- certainly raises those questions. He framed this settlement as a model moving forward and said it would be also a model for the department's new, more aggressive, more vigilant approach.
SESNOWhat do you expect when Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, goes to testify on the Hill, John?
PRIDEAUXI think she'll get an extremely tough ride. I mean, she benefits from the fact that she's taken over GM relatively recently. And so she doesn't necessarily own all the problems in the past. And that said, you know, there are some really, really serious problems. GM knew about these problems and -- which by the way, have caused a lot of crashes and even a few deaths, these problems with the ignition switches -- and knew about them in the mid-2000s and didn't do very much about it.
PRIDEAUXI mean, you would have thought that following the Toyota model, you know, GM would be hit with an absolutely enormous fine, you know, lots of lawsuits, and so on. I suspect, politically, there's a certain reluctance to pile further misery on, you know, on GM and on Detroit, which is already in a pretty tough situation. But I mean, if you said Toyota is the model, then you'd expect GM to get whacked.
SESNOAnd finally before we wrap here today, we have only a couple of minutes left and, Rachel, perhaps you can start on this. Court ruling on Wednesday paving a way for Kansas and Arizona to require proof of citizenship for all new voters. This is something that a number of civil rights and other groups have been pushing back when these things have been popping up across the country. What's this all about? And what implications does it have for these discussions and other places?
SMOLKINSure. A lot of implications, especially in an election year. A federal judge in Kansas this week ordered federal election authorities to help Kansas and Arizona require proof of citizenship for voters who are registering. And that is certainly a decision that we could very quickly see play out in other Republican dominated states and they want to make it tougher for some of these voters or at least ask them to demonstrate that they have citizenship here.
SMOLKINRepublicans say they have concerns of fraud. There has not been a lot of documented evidence of that. So Democrats respond by saying, no, you're not worried about fraud, you just want to disenfranchise more voters who are likely to vote Democratic. So highly politically charged issue.
WELNAI think there's a question of whether the Justice Department is going to appeal this district court ruling to the tenth circuit court in Denver. And I think that given a Supreme Court ruling last June that said that Congress has a say over elections in states, this may be something that ends up being solved legislatively.
SESNOAnd we will watch it very closely. Again, something that a number of civil rights groups and political groups, both sides of the divide watching closely. David Welna, Rachel Smolkin, John Prideaux, thanks to you all very much.
SESNOHave a great weekend and a great next week. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
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