Friday, May 22, 2009

New Laws, New Regulations, A Look at Bipartisanship, A Memorial Day Tribute

4 New Laws Signed + CAFE Standards
It has been a flurry of activity at the White House this week, with President Obama signing into law 4 pieces of legislation: The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act and The CARD Act. The President also announced sweeping regulatory reform to auto efficiency standards, which will raise the required fuel efficiency for cars to 39 miles per gallon by 2016 (truck efficiency would be required to go up to 29 MPG.)

The CAFE Standards
Dealing with the CAFE standards first, they have been criticized in some conservative circles as overly expensive, as increasing the risk of auto fatalities and even in at least one case, as being anti-freedom.

I'm a strong supporter of aggressive increases in CAFE standards, which have not changed significantly since 1985, for several reasons.

First, increasing fuel economy is the most powerful step that we can take to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The vast majority of oil imported is for automobile consumption, so increases in fuel efficiency directly impact the power that countries like Saudi Arabia have over our economy.

Second, automobiles account for over half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing efficiency is the surest way to reduce the speed of global climate change.

Let me quickly address the criticisms of the regulation. First, the overly expensive argument is a red herring. There are inexpensive vehicles on the market NOW that get 39 mpg. Will the cost of 20 mpg SUV's go up under this scheme? Absolutely. But will the cost of basic transportation increase? No, it will go down, because more fuel efficiency vehicles will be cheaper to operate.

Second, the safety argument. It is inarguable that if a Mini Cooper and a Ford Explorer have an accident, the Mini Cooper will not fare well. But this isn't a logical argument for bigger cars. Two Ford Explorers in a crash do about the same as two Mini Coopers in a crash. The safety factor now is a risk now for small cars because there are behemoths on the road. Remove the behemoths and small cars are very safe. They control better, stop faster, etc. The roads would be much safer if we all drove Mini Cooper (see auto safety in Western Europe if you don't believe me.)

Finally, the personal freedom issue. Nobody is saying that you can't have your Hummer. We are just saying that the economic incentives are going to force you to pay more for a gas-guzzling, road destroying vehicle that is dangerous to others on the road. C'est la vie. Aren't these the same conservatives who said that we should sacrifice our individual liberties in the name of national security?

The Laws
The four laws were passed with pretty bi-partisan support. They essentially are as follows:
(1) The Fraud Recovery and Enforcement Act -- beefs up the authority and funding of federal regulators to go after mortgage fraud.
(2) The Helping Americans Save Their Homes Act -- provides incentives for mortgage companies to renegotiate with homeowner's whose houses are "underwater" (their home value has dropped to the point that their equity is negative) rather than move forward with foreclosure.
(3) The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act -- creates additional oversight for weapons systems projects with an aim at reducing cost overruns
(4) The CARD Act -- places restrictions on banking practices pertaining to credit cards, most notably restricting interest rate increases to accounts more than 60 days delinquent and requiring notice of rate increases.

The Bipartisan Index
The fact that these four acts were fairly bipartisan in nature caused me to wonder, how can you define a measure in terms of bipartisanship? As you know, I believe meaningful terms have to be measureable, so I quickly worked at coming up with a mesaure.

I am proud to present you with a measure for legislations: the bipartisanship index. The way the index is calculated is simple. The index runs from 0 (completely bipartisan) to 1 (completely partisan). The scoring is based 50% on the final vote in the House and 50% on the final vote in the Senate (this is done so as not to overweight the House as both bodies represent the entire country, although the Senate has only 100 members to the House's 435.) In each body the index is calculated as:
absolute value (% of Democrats voting for the bill - % of Republicans voting for the bill)

This gives equal weight to both parties -- although the Republicans are out of power now, in terms of "bipartisanship", they are equally important as the Democrats.

Here are a few theoretical examples of how a bill would be scored:
(1) Example 1 -- all members on both sides of the aisle in both parties vote for a bill
Score: 0 -- completely bipartisan
(2) Example 2 -- exactly half of members on both sides of the aisle vote for a bill
Score: 0 -- perfectly bipartisan
(3) Example 3 -- 90% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans vote for a bill
Score: 0.8 -- fairly partisan

To provide a verbal description of the scores, I came up with:
0 -- completely bipartisan
0.01-0.25 -- highly bipartisan
0.25-0.50 -- bipartisan
0.50-0.75 -- fairly bipartisan
0.75-0.90 -- fairly partisan
0.90-0.99 -- highly partisan
1 -- completely partisan

For purposes of this score, I ignore Representatives and Senators not voting or voting "present".
I also ignore Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), even though they usually vote with Democrats as they are technically independents. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) is counted as a Republican up until his switch, after which he is counted as a Democrat.

Let's look at the major pieces of legislation that the President has signed and look at their scores:
Highly Partisan Legislation
Lilly Leadbetter Fair Pay Act 0.94
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act .94

Fairly Partisan Legislation
Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act 0.79
Omnibus '09 Appropriations Act* .89

Fairly Bipartisan Legislation
Omnibus Public Lands Management Act .64
Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act .53
CARD Act of 2009 -- Firearms in Public Parks Provision** .52

Bipartisan Legislation
DTV Delay Act .41

Highly Bipartisan Legislation
Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act .22
CARD Act of 2009 -- Main Bill** .22
Helping Families Save Their Homes Act .20

Completely Bipartisan Legislation
Small Business Act Temporary Extension .00
Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act .00

* Note that this act does not appear on the White House website with the other acts, although the President did sign it. Perhaps he would rather that we forget about that pork-laden bill to finish out the '09 budget year.
** The CARD Act of 2009 was voted on in two pieces, the central bill and an amendment to allow firearms in national parks

Of the 13 final votes (on 12 bills because of the separated vote on the CARD bill), only 2 fell into the highly partisan category and only 4 were categorized as "partisan".

Overall on these laws (I'm counting each vote on the CARD bill at 50%, since it really only was 1 law), the average is 0.49.

So, despite all the rhetoric, the point is, bipartisanship is not dead and Democrats and Republicans are actually working together to pass some significant legislation that you don't hear about on the nightly news. Of course, the biggest piece of legislation, the stimulus package, was the most partisan of all the votes, but I see real opportunity for more common ground in these numbers.

Memorial Day
I would be remiss if I didn't take time to pay tribute to the men and women in our armed services, both those serving and those fallen. These brave Americans defend our freedom and carry our flag abroad. They are heroes as young as 18, often put into terrible situations and the overwhelming majority respond with courage and character.

So, here's my Memorial Day wish list:
(1) That we will do something once and for all about Veteran's Benefits. Our wounded soldiers deserve not to have to worry about how to pay for health care and where their next meal will come from.
(2) A permanent, significant pay hike for the enlisted. It is a crime that we have soldiers who have to go on food stamps to feed their families.
(3) An automatic grant of citizenship of immigrants who are awarded service medals. There are thousands of brave immigrants fighting for our country who have not been granted citizenship. If anybody has earned a right to be first in line, they have.

I have a lot to catch up on next post, stimulus updates, the dueling Obama/Cheney speeches, the commencements, popularity poll updates, etc., but for now, enjoy your long weekend if you get one.

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