Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.
Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: $922. That's how much the federal government spent on average to sign up a person for Obamacare in the exchanges' first year of open enrollment.
Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: The story of America's recovery, in 15 charts.
Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Tech and media's big summer; (2) smooth sailing for HHS pick; (3) Yellen's latest hearing; (4) Obama's narrow midterm pitch; and (5) the highway funding gridlock.
1. Top story: A big summer is ahead for tech and media
How this summer could change the internet and media forever. "Watching today's House Judiciary Committee hearing on Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable...it's hard not be struck by the enormous tidal waves of change sweeping over the media business this summer. It is entirely possible that 2014 will end with the traditional cable bundle broken, a fundamental change to the free and open internet, and the emergence of Comcast as a telecom behemoth more powerful than the old AT&T even dared to dream. It is also possible the complete opposite of those things will happen." Nilay Patel in Vox.
The FCC chairman's net-neutrality proposal is being attacked from all directions, inside and out. "The government’s plan to let Internet providers charge Netflix, Google and others for faster access to customers has been thrown into turmoil, as the agency responsible for the rule has been riven by internal dissent and faces mounting opposition from the country’s most powerful tech companies. Determining whether Internet providers such as Verizon should be forced to treat all Internet content equally, from an amateur photo-sharing site to a massive movie-streaming service, has bedeviled the government for years." Cecilia Kang and Brian Fung in The Washington Post.
Venture capitalists are unhappy. "Wheeler’s proposal, which isn’t final, already has sparked a firestorm of criticism because it could allow Internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon to charge companies for faster delivery of their content....Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s top investors took aim: In a letter to the FCC, more than 50 venture capitalists expressed deep misgivings about the creation of an Internet “fast lane,” which they said many start-ups and entrepreneurs could never afford to access." Tony Romm in Politico.
Tech giants are unhappy, and so are Wheeler's fellow Democrats. "Two Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission indicated they have serious concerns about Chairman Tom Wheeler's net neutrality proposal, casting doubt on his ability to start considering the plan next week. The comments...came as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Yahoo led a group of about 150 online companies in writing to the FCC on Wednesday saying Wheeler's proposal...posed 'a grave threat to the Internet.' With the two Republicans on the five-person agency opposed to enacting new net neutrality rules, Wheeler needs the votes of his fellow Democrats to move his plan forward." Jim Puzzanghera in the Los Angeles Times.
But Wheeler, feeling squeezed by the courts, may go ahead anyway. "But the chairman doesn't appear to be backing down. In a statement, an FCC spokesman said Wheeler 'fully supports a robust public debate on how best to protect the Open Internet, which is why he intends to put forward his proposals for public comment next week.'...The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC's old net-neutrality rules in January. Wheeler is trying to rework the regulations in a way that can stand up to future court challenges." Brendan Sasso in National Journal.
Bipartisan concern over the Comcast-Time Warner merger proposal. "Lawmakers expressed concern about combining the top two U.S. cable operators at a congressional hearing Thursday to discuss Comcast's plan to merge with Time Warner Cable Inc. While none of the lawmakers asked regulators to block the transaction, both Republicans and Democrats cautioned there were potential negatives in the $45 billion deal....Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen tried to allay the concerns. 'This transaction has the potential to slow the increase in prices. ... Consumers are going to be the big winners,' he told a hearing of the House of Representatives' antitrust panel." Diane Bartz in Reuters.
Will merger put a chokehold on the net? One exec thinks so. "Comcast Corp.’s (CMCSA) purchase of Time Warner Cable Inc. (TWC) should be blocked by U.S. regulators because the combined entity will be too big and may abuse its market power, said the leader of a company that carries one-fifth of the world’s Web traffic. Comcast has demanded payment for delivering uninterrupted Internet content to subscribers, Cogent (CCOI) Communications Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dave Schaeffer told lawmakers....The companies previously exchanged Web traffic over the two-way data highway at no cost to each other, he said." Todd Shields and David McLaughlin in Bloomberg.
Surprise! Panel with vocal NSA defenders passes overhaul bill. "A House committee led by some of the most vocal defenders of the National Security Agency has now approved a bill that would end the government's mass collection of Americans' phone records. The House Intelligence Committee passed Thursday on a voice vote the USA Freedom Act, which would curtail the government's ability to collect bulk phone metadata — the numbers and timestamps of a call but not its actual contents. The panel passed 'the exact same' version of the bill that unanimously cleared the House Judiciary Committee just a day earlier, a committee aide said." Dustin Volz in National Journal.
Other tech reads:
House panel moves to stall Obama's plan to transfer Internet authority. Brendan Sasso in National Journal.
KRUGMAN: Now that's rich. "Institutional Investor’s latest 'rich list' in its Alpha magazine, its survey of the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers, is out — and it turns out that these guys make a lot of money. Surprise! Yet before we dismiss the report as nothing new, let’s think about what it means that these 25 men (yes, they’re all men) made a combined $21 billion in 2013. In particular, let’s think about how their good fortune refutes several popular myths about income inequality in America." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.
BALL: The climate assessment's equivocations. "The clash between scientific uncertainty and political reductionism lies at the core of the fight over what to do about climate change. The question: How sure do people need to be about the kind of damage global warming might cause before they’ll accept big changes...to try to keep the problems at bay?...The report, called the National Climate Assessment, has generated headlines for the the scary climate-change impacts it lays out....What has gotten little attention — but what history suggests could prove a big, unwelcome surprise to the public — are the scientific equivocations that underlie many of those frightening projections." Jeffrey Ball in The New Republic.
ROY: Piketty's impoverished debate about inequality — and ours. "The American left has worked itself into another one of its frenzies about income inequality. This one has been triggered by a French economist named Thomas Piketty, whose new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues that capitalism 'automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities' in times like ours because 'the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income.' Let’s step back and stipulate that it’s a noble and worthy policy objective to expand economic opportunity for those who least have it. But here’s the thing: The way we talk and think and write about economic inequality is, shall we say, impoverished." Avik Roy in Forbes.
DREIER: What housing recovery? "Recently there’s been a lot of happy talk about the nation’s housing recovery. Frequent reports about rising prices suggest that the tens of millions of people whose homes lost value just have to wait until the recovery reaches their neighborhood to lift them out of crisis. But this supposed housing recovery is bypassing many of our cities and towns." Peter Dreier in The New York Times.
GARDNER: Does Obamacare expand or reduce freedom? "It is uncontroversial that the ACA infringes negative freedom....But the ACA might also expand positive freedom. Many people who were excluded from the insurance market because of pre-existing conditions, or who could not afford it, will now have an option to purchase it. For those who have obtained their insurance through their employer, the ACA may give them greater freedom to change jobs or retire. Finally, getting insurance may provide people with access to healthcare that restores their capabilities and prolongs their lives....Of course, how much the ACA infringes negative freedom and whether the ACA actually delivers positive freedoms will and should be contested." Bill Gardner in The Incidental Economist.
TANNER: Obamacare's famous victory. "Given the debacles of healthcare.gov and the initial rollout of the health-care exchanges, the fact that slightly more than 8 million Americans have signed up for exchange-based plans is a significant accomplishment. In addition, a few million more Americans have enrolled in Medicaid, and some more young people were able to remain on their parents’ insurance policies. Certainly, things could have been worse. But if this is victory, I’d hate to see defeat." Michael Tanner in National Review.
Life's ponderables interlude: Why people don't remember when they were a baby.
2. The easy part for Burwell comes first
Burwell gets the friendly treatment. "Republican senators were downright cordial to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama's pick to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services, at her nomination hearing Thursday. It was a far cry from some of the tense moments that outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced during her visits to the Hill. If Burwell is confirmed to lead HHS, she'll be in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy, with continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act as one of her biggest challenges. Republicans still hate the law and offered their views during the Senate Health Committee hearing, but their broad support for Burwell to lead the agency seemed like a lock." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.
A conga line of problems awaits Burwell at HHS. "There's already a mountain of problems waiting for Sylvia Mathews Burwell at HHS. And that mountain will probably grow even bigger....And if she is confirmed, she'll then have to actually take over a sprawling, poorly managed department responsible for the president's top domestic priority — not to mention the country's most expensive entitlement programs, its food and drug regulations, and its most important medical research. Obamacare implementation would certainly be Burwell's biggest responsibility, and there's still a lot that needs to be done." Sam Baker in National Journal.
Explainer: 5 highlights from Burwell's career. Louise Radnofksy in The Wall Street Journal.
Fixing HealthCare.gov would indeed be top priority, she says. "Burwell steered a cautious path at the Thursday hearing, emphasizing her collaborative and leadership credentials and detailing her management philosophies, rather than straying into controversial territory. Burwell called the technical problems that initially plagued the Web site 'unacceptable.' But she said the Affordable Care Act is 'making a difference in the lives of our families and our communities while strengthening the economy,' and said addressing the problems that still plague HealthCare.gov would be a top priority." Sandhya Somashekhar in The Washington Post.
Compared with state exchanges, HealthCare.gov looks like a bargain. "Sometimes there really are economies of scale. And the nation's health insurance exchanges may be a case in point. As rocky as the rollout of HealthCare.gov was, the federal exchange was relatively efficient in signing up enrollees. Each one cost an average of $647 in federal tax dollars, an analysis finds. It cost an average of $1,503 – well over twice as much – to sign up each person in the 15 exchanges run by individual states and Washington, D.C....Even Covered California, the most efficient of the state-run exchanges at $758 per enrollee, still spent more than the average for the federal exchange." Julie Rovner in NPR.
Charts: Hawaii’s Obamacare exchange cost nearly $24,000 per enrollee. German Lopez in Vox.
How Obamacare could keep shifting employees to the exchanges. "Some workers end up paying more for insurance in the exchanges and beginning next year, big companies that don't offer coverage will have to pay a penalty. Nevertheless, Michael Thompson of the financial research firm S&P Capital IQ, predicts more and more companies will decide to get out of the business of providing health insurance, now that their workers have another way to get coverage through the Affordable Care Act....At first, Thompson expects only a few big companies will make the switch, but as firms discover they can save money by shifting workers onto the exchanges, the trend will accelerate until by 2020." Scott Horsley in NPR.
The latest legal challenge to Obamacare seems like a long shot. "The seemingly endless legal war over health care found an esoteric new front Thursday, as appellate judges considered where certain bills should originate....More than 8.1 million U.S. residents have enrolled through the various health insurance exchanges. Legal theories aside, judges might think hard about trying to unwind that. All three of the judges hearing the case were Democratic appointees, and President Barack Obama recently named two of them to the court. Their questions and observations Thursday suggested sympathy for the administration’s position, including references to the congressional health care debate itself." Michael Doyle in McClatchy Newspapers.
Other health care reads:
A new legal battle opens over Obamacare and contraception. David G. Savage in the Los Angeles Times.
Obamacare has a deductibles problem. John Tozzi in Bloomberg Businessweek.
The health-cost problem is coming back. Drew Altman in The Wall Street Journal.
Astronomy interlude: How NASA photographs the Sun.
3. It's election season, and it showed in Yellen's latest hearing
Republican senators take on Yellen on jobs. "The hearing before the Senate Budget Committee flipped the standard script of congressional sessions in recent years with Ms. Yellen and her predecessor, Ben S. Bernanke. Generally, Democrats are the ones who fret about unemployment and the weak economy, while Republicans question whether the Fed will lose control of inflation or destabilize financial markets. With the midterm elections approaching, however, Democrats are increasingly eager to claim credit for the progress of the economic recovery, while Republicans are emphasizing that the recovery remains weak and incomplete." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.
It may take 5 to 8 years for the Fed to shrink its portfolio. "The U.S. Federal Reserve is in no rush to decide the appropriate size of its balance sheet, but if it ultimately shrinks it to a pre-crisis size, the process could take the better part of a decade, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said on Thursday. Yellen, in testimony to a Senate panel, said no decision had yet been made on the central bank's portfolio of assets, which has swollen to $4.5 trillion from about $800 billion in 2007." Jonathan Spicer and Tim Ahmann in Reuters.
Businesses are feeling more confident now that budget battles are fading. "Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said Thursday that businesses appear to be more willing to hire and invest as lawmakers move past their budget battles, putting the economy on stronger footing. In response to a question during a Senate Budget Committee hearing, Ms. Yellen said she has heard from businesses that the 'crisis atmosphere' created by standoffs over raising the nation's borrowing limit 'has diminished their willingness to hire and invest.' But she sees that mentality beginning to change 'and I consider it a good sign for the economy going forward.'" Victoria McGrane and Ben Leubsdorf in The Wall Street Journal.
Drop in jobless claims signals a firmer labor market. "The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, indicating the labor market was strengthening despite a run-up in applications in prior weeks. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits declined 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 319,000 for the week ended May 3, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The decline snapped three straight weeks of increases that were driven by difficulties adjusting data during the Easter and Passover holidays and school spring breaks, which fall on different calendar days every year." Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.
Fed proposal would limit financial firms' consolidation. "The Federal Reserve is seeking input on a measure that would bar U.S. banks from acquisitions that push their share of all financial-company liabilities above a 10 percent threshold. The Fed proposal released today would implement a Dodd-Frank Act mandate that would match a nationwide 10 percent cap that already applies to deposits. The central bank is inviting public comments until July 8. The limit was meant to promote financial stability and combat perceptions that some U.S. institutions may be too big to fail." Jesse Hamilton in Bloomberg.
Yellen also took on shadow banking, defending prospect of regulation. "Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and another top Fed official defended the prospect of stricter regulation for large, nonbank financial firms such as asset managers, as Washington looks to rein in risks emerging outside the traditional banking sector. Ms. Yellen...said bringing large asset managers in for tougher supervision would be justified if their failure could threaten financial stability. Before imposing stricter rules on nonbanks, however, Ms. Yellen said regulators first needed 'to really identify clear ways in which the failure of these firms' would pose risks to the financial system." Ryan Tracy in The Wall Street Journal.
Video: Shadow banking's ignominious history. The Economist.
Other economic/financial reads:
Key Democrats said to join opposition to housing overhaul. Cheyenne Hopkins in Bloomberg.
Small investors caught up in fight over Fannie, Freddie. Dina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.
U.S. banking regulators have math geeks of their own. Lauren Tara LaCapra in Reuters.
China's urban economic might could dominate by 2030, report says. Dexter Roberts in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Acrobatics interlude: Going around a corner with a bike.
4. What is Obama's best midterm pitch?
A narrowly honed pitch, it seems. "One of the signature questions facing any president is where he will fall at the end of his time in the White House in the balance between how much he changes the office versus how much the office changes him. As President Barack Obama stumps this week in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley to raise money for Democrats in what he promises really will be his last campaign, he sounds like a far different commander in chief than he was when he was sworn in six years ago." Carol E. Lee in The Wall Street Journal.
Obama concedes his executive push will have limited effect. "President Obama acknowledged Thursday that the executive actions he has been taking to work around an uncooperative Congress will go only so far in achieving his agenda, and said Democrats need to win control of the legislative branch to set the country on the right path in the final two years of his tenure. The remarks at a fundraiser here were striking because Obama has released high-profile executive actions every few weeks as part of a 'year of action' meant to bypass the Republicans who lead the House and who have refused to cede almost any legislative achievement to the president since taking control in 2010." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.
The president's climate push could backfire in midterms. "The president’s emphasis on climate change appeals to his liberal base, which has pressed him to be much more aggressive on environmental issues. Obama needs those voters to turn out in November if Democrats are to hold onto control of the Senate....But his push poses a risk for Democrats running for re-election in conservative-leaning states, who have sought to distance themselves from Obama’s record, pushing him to approve the Keystone pipeline, for example." Sean Cockerham and Lesley Clark in McClatchy Newspapers.
Animals interlude: The 100 most important cat pictures of all time.
5. Highway funding is running out, but Congress can't agree on a solution
Highway funding faces a bumpy road, to say the least. "There are 1,001,874 miles of roads in the U.S. that receive some federal aid and nearly as many ideas in Congress on how to pay for them. With money running low in the Highway Trust Fund, the main source of federal cash to build and maintain roads and transit systems, the Transportation Department has indicated it may need to delay reimbursing states for construction costs starting this summer unless Congress moves to replenish the account. While lawmakers almost universally agree the federal government should play a role in keeping the highway system funded, there is no consensus on how to do that." Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.
Charts: America’s transportation needs are huge. Too bad the way we fund them is broken. Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.
Obama steps up pressure on Congress to find an answer. "The Obama administration stepped up pressure on Congress Wednesday to approve new transportation funding, warning that hundreds of millions of dollars in daily payments to states could slow by August without action. The federal Highway Trust Fund is rapidly running out of money because gasoline-tax revenue isn't keeping up with spending. Lawmakers from both parties say they want to find new funding." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.
Roads and bridges aren't in good shape. "Highways and bridges — and other critical parts of the nation's transportation infrastructure such as railways — need serious upgrades and repairs. How serious? The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a D+ in terms of condition and performance." Jeanne Sahadi in CNN.
Video: New tolls, higher gas taxes considered for more highway funding. Lisa Ruhl in the Washington Examiner.
Background reading: Washington's next cliff. Jake Sherman and Adam Snider in Politico.
Other transportation reads:
Airlines are pushing Congress to roll back airfare-disclosure rule. Joan Lowy in the Associated Press.
Census says more people are biking to work. Associated Press.
Slow-motion interlude: Aluminum powder ignites in slow motion.
Target’s CEO didn’t leave because of a cybersecurity breach. Lydia DePillis.
The story of the American recovery in 15 charts. Ryan McCarthy.
HHS nominee Burwell gets friendly treatment in Senate hearing. Jason Millman.
The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads. Christopher Ingraham.
America’s transportation needs are huge. Too bad the way we fund them is broken. Lydia DePillis.
Why Obama may never get an immigration bill. Manu Raju and Seung Min Kim in Politico.
Oklahoma delays execution after botched lethal injection. Molly Hennessy-Fiske in the Los Angeles Times.
U.S. warns schools against bias. Kimberly Hefling in the Associated Press.
Senators study ways to stem overseas tax avoidance. John D. McKinnon in The Wall Street Journal.
Collective shrug to Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca reflects Congress' stalemate. James Politi and Richard McGregor in The Financial Times.
Long read: Cashing in on Keystone XL — even if it's never approved. Alexander Burns and Andrew Restuccia in Politico.
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Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.