Rep. Alex Mooney’s Feckless Vote on Healthcare

On May 4, 2017, the United States House of Representatives voted to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA) by a narrow margin of 217 to 213, sending the bill to the Senate for deliberation. This Bill would repeal the majority of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) known as Obamacare, a promise made by Donald Trump and numerous Republican legislators during the 2016 campaign.

It is hard to describe in measured words the destructive impact the AHCA would have on West Virginia. Obamacare permitted the expansion of Medicaid benefits to large numbers of uninsured West Virginians. Because of this expansion we made great progress insuring low income, working adults, reducing the uninsured rate from 17% of the population to 5%. Repealing this feature of the law will cause 175,000 West Virginians to be uninsured once again.

One effect of the loss of health insurance is that people who need to see a doctor simply won’t. These people are at risk that their health status and earning capability will decline. Then there is opioid addiction, which has reached epidemic proportions in West Virginia. In 2016 approximately 20,000 people were treated for substance abuse disorder under the Medicaid expansion. This treatment will evaporate under AHCA. Some of the newly uninsured will get emergency treatment for illness and injury at hospitals and clinics. This is called uncompensated care.

When there is no insurance, who actually pays for uncompensated care? The people receiving care could pay out of their pockets. More likely, state and local governments or the hospitals and clinics themselves could be forced to absorb the cost. One projection estimates that West Virginia hospitals would be asked to provide $135 million more in uncompensated care annually.

Numerous national trade associations and interest groups operating in the healthcare space strongly opposed the AHCA. These included the AARP, The American Medical Association, The American Hospital Association, and Catholic Health Association of the United States. Even conservative groups such as Heritage Action and the Cato Institute opposed the AHCA.

In a series of three letters beginning in January 2017, two West Virginia Governors and the West Virginia Cabinet Secretary for Health and Human Services warned our Congressional delegation about the consequences of a repeal of Obamacare. On January 9, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wrote to House majority leader Kevin McCarthy and the West Virginia delegation, noting that West Virginia’s population is one of the most rural and oldest in the nation, with poor health indicators. He said, “Federal funding must be maintained or West Virginia’s health care infrastructure will collapse.”

On February 15, Governor Jim Justice wrote a number of U.S Senators and sent copies to Rep. Mooney and the others in the West Virginia delegation. Justice said “Repeal of Medicaid expansion would eliminate up to $900 million from West Virginia’s healthcare economy annually” leading to the potential loss of 16,000 jobs.

None of these entreaties had the desired effect on Rep. Mooney — he voted in support of the AHCA. His official statement began as follows: “Today, I was proud to vote for the American Health Care Act. I pledged to voters in the Second District that I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare and today I fulfilled that pledge.” His statement pointed to the “collapsing market” for health insurance and asserted that the free market would provide better options for people who can afford insurance, but offered not one word concerning the large swath of West Virginians who will be rendered uninsured or the impact of repeal on West Virginia’s economy.

Why would our Congressman vote for the AHCA in the face of unrebutted information that it would devastate the lives of many West Virginians and deal another blow to our economy? One answer is to take him at his word – he promised to do it and he was determined to keep his promise. While there is something to be said for keeping promises, the moral value of doing so here is petty in comparison to the moral imperative to protect hundreds of thousands of people who would lose healthcare coverage.

There is a less attractive explanation that may be closer to the truth. A vote in favor of the AHCA was demanded by President Trump and the House Republican hierarchy, and Rep. Mooney did not have the fibre to oppose them despite the cost to his constituents. More likely he was happy to join with them for ideological reasons despite the costs to his constituents.

As for being “proud” of his position on the AHCA, Rep. Mooney certainly has not acted like it. In March when he and Senator Joe Manchin met with constituents at a state Congressional reception in Washington, D.C., many of the attendees aggressively questioned Rep. Mooney about the AHCA. Mooney fled the room when he could no longer provide answers. Subsequently, he was quoted in the Martinsburg Journal claiming that these people were “professionally trained radicalists.” But in the comments submitted by readers of the Journal’s original March 11, 2017 article about the incident, Sara Le Rana said:

I was in attendance as an interested citizen. I WAS NOT paid or a “professionally trained radicalist.” I’m uncertain what that is. Mooney RAN, not walked, he RAN rather than stay and do his job. Manchin listened, encouraged the guests closer to him. Mooney refused to listen or stay to respond in a respectful manner . . . . The dude ran.

This evasive behavior on the part of Rep. Mooney has been typical of his lack of responsiveness, and that of his staff, in large part around the healthcare issue. West Virginians deserve better than this.

2018 cannot come soon enough.

Bank Regulation and Bubbles

The bubbles referred to here aren’t in Champagne or a luxurious bath. They are the rapid inflation of value in an asset class – maybe stocks or single-family homes – to unsustainable levels inevitably followed by rapid, uncontrolled deflation. The unmistakable pop. Those my age have muddled through a number of these bubbles. There was the incredible run-up in value of tech stocks in the 1990s. Then came the sub-prime mortgage lending bubble that popped in 2007.

Bubbles are important to consider these days because a central brake on the conduct of banks in contributing to bubbles, called the Dodd-Frank Act, is under attack by the de-regulators in Congress. Banks and bankers provide a crucial function in our economy. We need them to extend credit, which is the lubricant of the economy, but to do so in a prudent manner. Unfortunately, like most every industry, the banking industry is not self-regulating. Left to govern itself completely, the industry will engage in excessive and risky behavior. This has happened time and again and is just the nature of things.

Man Controlling TradeThe image to the right is a statue called Man Controlling Trade installed outside the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. It was commissioned in 1937, before the United States had completely crawled out of the Great Depression. Most historians agree that among the causes of the Depression was the credit banks granted for speculative investment in stocks. This was followed by the stock market crash of 1929, which led to the failure of 9,000 banks. This risky behavior with depositors’ money had been completely unregulated. The statue’s powerful horse is meant to represent the danger of uncontrolled economic behavior.

To bridle this risky bank behavior, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933. The principal feature of this law was a separation of commercial banking from investment banking. Commercial banks, which took in deposits and made loans, were no longer allowed to underwrite or deal in securities. This regulated environment continued until 1999 when it was lifted by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which allowed banks, securities firms and insurance companies to affiliate with one another through common holding companies.

The conventional wisdom is that deregulation under Gramm-Leach-Bliley led to the sub-prime mortgage crash in 2007. This is incorrect. The two portions of Glass-Steagall that Gramm-Leach-Bliley repealed had nothing to do with the issuance or purchase of mortgage-backed securities. Banks had been issuing mortgages, securitizing them with other financial instruments, and buying mortgage-backed securities for years before Gramm-Leach-Bliley. But unfortunately there was no regulatory structure that prevented banks from lowering underwriting standards on the underlying mortgage loans as the market overheated. This lack of regulatory control led, as it always does, to excessively risky lending and a bubble.

The Great Recession that began in 2007 spurred the adoption of the Dodd-Frank Act, a massive piece of legislation. Dodd-Frank was designed to reorganize government financial oversight and give greater transparency to the finance industry. It sought to address the notion that some financial institutions are “too big to fail” and end taxpayer bailouts of failed banks. It also sought to protect the consumer from abusive conduct in the finance industry. But it has been a regulatory nightmare. One commentator has noted that the Act requires regulators to create 243 rules, conduct 67 studies, and issue 22 periodic reports.

Dodd-Frank has been on the books only seven years and it is too soon to know how successful it has been and can be. We do know, however, that there has been no financial bubble since it was enacted. Nevertheless, Rep. Alex Mooney (WV 2nd) and others whose mission is to dismantle anything created during the Obama administration want a complete repeal of Dodd-Frank. Mr. Mooney is now on the House Financial Services Committee where he can do some real damage.

Rep. Mooney recently met with roundtables of community bankers in Charleston and in the Eastern Panhandle. The bankers complained that Dodd-Frank was designed for huge banks and doesn’t “scale down” to banks the size of most in this state. They claimed that over-regulation has raised their costs and made it harder and more costly to make loans. Maybe this is a legitimate complaint for small community banks, but what regulated industry ever believes that the hand of the regulator lays upon it too lightly? There are even some in the banking industry who argue that  community banks are “too small to succeed” because they cannot generate the return on assets of larger banks, a problem that cannot be blamed on Dodd-Frank. Whatever their regulatory burden, community banks do not seem to be hobbled in West Virginia – auto loans and home equity loans are a booming business now.

Michael Barr, University of Michigan Law School professor and a key architect of the Dodd-Frank Act, says that the U.S. financial system is “incredibly healthy” in comparison to 2008 and presently in other countries. But not if you listen to House Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R, Tex.), who blames a slow recovery from the Great Recession on Dodd-Frank. Hensarling has championed The Financial Choice Act, which would gut a number of important Dodd-Frank regulations.  This bill was recently reported out of his Committee on a completely partisan vote of 34-26.

Both sides of this issue have decent arguments. But considering the incredibly damaging effects of bursting asset bubbles, I for one am willing to risk a little sluggishness in bank lending in exchange for solid controls on bank behavior. Perhaps when the Financial Choice Act reaches the House floor, or the Senate, better recognition of the virtues of control will prevail.

Rep. Alex Mooney Ignores the Panhandle’s Economic Needs

Let’s face it. Panhandle voters did themselves no favor when they elected Alex Mooney as West Virginia’s 2nd District Congressman. Characteristics we’d like to see in a Congressman – independence of thought, sensitivity to constituent needs, flexibility in problem solving – appear to be lacking in Rep. Mooney. His actions and statements show him to be one dimensional. Whatever outrage President Trump proposes for the environment with the false promise of putting coal miners back to work is just fine by him.

For proof of this I invite anyone to review Rep. Mooney’s website for his public statements and news releases. Don’t expect to find any evidence of initiative in Congress meaningful to the Panhandle. Instead, a favorite Mooney posting is a “statement” lauding something President Trump has done and repeating tired Republican attacks on the Obama administration. Here is one issued on March 28, 2017:

Today, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that rolls back devastating [Clean Power Plan] regulations on American energy production. . . . . This Executive Order is just one of the many ways President Trump is standing up for West Virginia energy production and I am proud to stand with him in this fight. For eight years, former President Barack Obama waged an all-out war on coal and West Virginia values. As unemployment skyrocketed and coal mines closed, President Obama and his left-wing supporters focused on executing on his promise to bankrupt the coal industry.

Earlier, Rep. Mooney celebrated President Trump’s roll-back of the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which was designed to blunt the harmful effects of mountaintop removal mining. Based on wildly inflated figures from the National Mining Association, Rep. Mooney claimed that the Rule would have cost 70,000 coal mining jobs. Pretty soon Rep. Mooney will have to come up with some ideas that actually move us forward, instead of ritually dismantling what was done during the previous administration. But don’t hold your breath. This may take a while.

Six of eight counties in the Eastern Panhandle are part of the 2nd District – Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hardy, Hampshire and Pendleton. According to Census Bureau estimates, the 2016 total population of these six counties was 231,766, making up 37% of the 2nd District. Simply from the standpoint of the total votes in the Panhandle, you would expect Rep. Mooney to pay some attention to our economic needs.

There is no coal mining in the Eastern Panhandle. Our economy is heavily weighted toward white-collar jobs in healthcare and government, tourism and agriculture. Our conservation and environmental interest groups are thriving. A ruined environment, fueled by Big Coal and science-denial, directly harms our means of achieving prosperity and our enjoyment of life. Rep. Mooney’s dogged support of the coal industry is completely out of touch with our needs. In fact, it is out of touch with the needs of the entire state. Coal mining jobs make up only a minor slice of West Virginia’s current employment. Counting generously, there are 20,000 miners employed in West Virginia out of total employment of 740,000.

Instead of legislation to improve our economic prosperity, Rep. Mooney seems more interested in right-wing social legislation. He has twice introduced a Bill called the Life at Conception Act (H.R. 816), and has introduced a resolution (H. Res. 514) imploring the states to permit individuals to disregard laws and regulations on the ground of their personal religious beliefs. In the 114th Congress none of the Bills introduced by Rep. Mooney became law.

Certainly, there is more to being an effective legislator than the number of your Bills that are passed. But Rep. Mooney was one of those Congressmen who wouldn’t meet his constituents in face-to-face town hall meetings to explain what he’s doing for us. No doubt he was afraid to hear the pent up anger in his District. There is still time in his current term for Rep. Mooney to demonstrate that he understands the Panhandle’s economic needs. But it is hard to be optimistic.

Rep. Alex Mooney Deals a Blow to West Virginia’s Mountain Streams

Rep. Alex Mooney (WV 2nd) is celebrating the demise of the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule. This Rule, made effective in the waning days of President Obama’s tenure, would have created a buffer zone between mountain streams and mine sites and would have protected drinking water in accordance with modern technology. The Rule would have mainly affected mining done by mountaintop removal where mining refuse is pushed into stream valleys. But Rep. Mooney and his Big Coal backers claim that the Rule would have killed over 70,000 jobs in the coal industry. Unfortunately, Rep. Mooney’s grasp of coal economics and employment numbers is feeble, perhaps influenced by his ideological impulse to dance on the grave of the Obama Administration.

The scientific evidence of the harm done by mountaintop removal with valley fills is unassailable. In January 2010, Science Magazine published an article detailing that harm, written and researched by twelve preeminent scientists including one from WVU. They found that burial of headwater streams by valley fills causes permanent loss of ecosystems. Stream biodiversity and water quality suffer. As they emerge from valley fills, mountain streams are saturated with sulfate, calcium, magnesium and other harmful ions. These persist even after mine-site reclamation. Groundwater samples from domestic supply wells have higher levels of mine-derived chemicals than well water from unmined areas. The article, written before Obama’s stream protection Rule, concludes

mine-related contaminants persist in streams well below valley fills, forests are destroyed, headwater streams are lost, and biological diversity is reduced; all of these demonstrate that [mountaintop removal with valley fill] causes significant environmental damage despite regulatory requirements to minimize impacts.

Balanced against this certain environmental harm is Rep. Mooney’s rather hysterical claim that huge numbers of West Virginia coal jobs would have been lost under the Rule. It should surprise no one that Rep. Mooney’s numbers come straight from the National Mining Association. That group’s analysis asserted that as many as 77,000 jobs might be lost nationwide under the worst scenario, but possibly far fewer under more likely scenarios. Those are not all West Virginia jobs, or even Appalachian jobs. And there is good reason to doubt the bona fides of NMA’s numbers because they do not take into account the reclamation and compliance jobs that would be created by the Rule.

Congress required the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to estimate the proposed Rule’s impact on employment, not just on coal jobs. In a document entitled SPR Myths vs, Facts, it debunks industry claims that between 40,000 and 77,000 jobs would be lost:

The final [Stream Protection Rule] will not have an adverse impact on jobs. The regulatory impact analysis (RIA) for the rule estimates overall that employment will show [an annual average] increase of 156 full time jobs. Where coal production is unprofitable under market conditions, jobs are predicted to decline by an average annual aggregate of 124 fulltime jobs. This will be more than offset by an average annual gain of 280 fulltime jobs needed to comply with the rule where mining remains profitable, such as additional jobs like heavy machine operators for materials placement and water sampling professionals. For purposes of comparison, the Energy Information Administration reports that total coal industry employment in 2015 was equal to 65,971, decreasing 12% from 2014.

In a February 22, 2017 opinion piece, the Morgan Messenger took Senators Capito and Manchin to task for claiming that rolling back the Rule would save state coal jobs. “They don’t do our state any favors by pretending to have turned back the loss of coal jobs,” the Messenger said, noting that coal jobs have been declining for years due to economic factors unrelated to environmental regulations. Rep. Mooney is guilty of the same and more. By accepting and further promoting the coal industry’s false narrative about a “war on coal” he delays the reckoning we in West Virginia must have about replacing coal jobs and severance revenues. He keeps us in the perpetual coal rut. The roll back of the Stream Protection Rule is no cause for him to celebrate.