Since October 2017, when BuzzFeed published allegations made by actor Anthony Rapp that Spacey made a sexual advance toward Rapp when Rapp was 14, more than 30 people have come forward with their own allegations against Spacey, with accounts ranging from harassment to attempted rape. On November 16, 2017, London’s Old Vic Theatre, where Spacey served as artistic director from 2004 to 2015, announced that a hotline it set up to facilitate its investigation into Spacey had received 20 allegations of “a range of inappropriate behavior,” all concerning young men over the age of 18.
The revelations of his alleged behavior took a bizarre turn on Christmas Eve 2018, when Spacey released a bizarre video via his official Twitter account and what appeared to be a YouTube fan channel, in which he attempted to address the public. (Some internet onlookers have questioned the possibility that the video is a fake, an example of a creepy computer-generated simulation known as a “deepfake.”) The video, called “Let Me Be Frank,” tacitly presented Spacey as Frank Underwood, his former character from House of Cards. The video appeared just as news broke that Spacey would be arraigned in Nantucket District Court in January 2019 on criminal charges related to the alleged 2016 assault of a then-18-year-old at a bar.
In the video, Spacey seems to simultaneously be referencing both the allegations made against him and the “death” of his fictional House of Cards character — who was promptly killed off after Netflix first suspended production on the show following the allegations against Spacey, and then promoted Robin Wright to solo lead for the show’s sixth and final season.
In language that recalls several of the more disturbing allegations of nonconsensual physical assault made against Spacey, the actor seems to tell the audience that he’s making a comeback, regardless of what they say they want:
“We’re not done, no matter what anyone says. And besides, I know what you want. You want me back.”
Here’s what we know so far about the allegations that have surfaced against Spacey, and the consequences that have ensued.
Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of assaulting him when Rapp was 14. Spacey deflected by coming out as gay.
Rapp is a veteran Broadway actor best known for originating the role of Mark in Rent; he’s currently playing Star Trek’s first openly gay character on the CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery. He told BuzzFeed that Spacey befriended him in 1986, when Rapp was 14 years old and performing in the Broadway play Precious Sons. According to Rapp, Spacey made “a sexual advance” toward him while he was attending a party at Spacey’s home.
After his claims went public on October 29, 2017, Rapp stated on Twitter that he was coming forward in solidarity with the dozens of women who’ve made allegations against Harvey Weinstein, as well as other assault survivors, “standing on the shoulders of the many courageous women and men who have been speaking out to shine a light and hopefully make a difference.”
Spacey responded to Rapp’s allegations by issuing a statement on Twitter in which he said he owed Rapp “the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Spacey then added, “This story has encouraged me to address other things about my life. I know that there are stories out there about me and that some have been fueled by the fact I have been so protective of my privacy. … I choose now to live as a gay man. I want to deal with this honestly and openly and that starts with examining my own behavior.”
And in the days that followed, several other accusers came forward to make their own allegations against Spacey, challenging his implication that his behavior was an isolated incident of irresponsible drunkenness.
More than 30 accusers have come forward against Spacey with allegations that span decades. Here’s a rundown.
Since Rapp came forward, numerous other allegations against Spacey have surfaced. More than a dozen men have made specific claims against the actor. Many of Spacey’s accusers describe witnessing or experiencing behavior from the actor that, like Weinstein, involved using the lure of his success and the opportunity of career mentorship to put himself in a position where he could then prey on young men. Taken together, the allegations suggest a pattern of escalating physical contact, the consistent presence of alcohol, and Spacey making a habit of cornering his victims in order to confront them.
Here are the allegations we know so far.
1983–1984: anonymous 14-year-old boy
An anonymousman told New York magazine that in 1983, when he was 14 and Spacey was 24, he began a sexual relationship with Spacey that allegedly culminated in Spacey attempting to rape him.
The anonymous actor stated that his relationship with Spacey lasted about a year, during which time he became aware that “25-year-olds don’t have sex with 14- and 15-year-olds, that that’s wrong, that I was not the guilty party and I could leave.” He told New York that the relationship ended when he was 15, after Spacey allegedly attempted to rape him.
“Mr. Spacey absolutely denies the allegations,” a representative for Spacey told the magazine.
1985: anonymous 17-year-old boy
The BBC reported on November 1, 2017, that Spacey allegedly approached an anonymous 17-year-old boy in 1985, befriending the teen and then ultimately inviting him to visit his home, where Spacey progressed from being “charming and brotherly” to sexually inappropriate. After rejecting Spacey’s initial advances, the accuser says he woke up to find “Spacey’s head on his stomach and his arms wrapped around him.” The anonymous source described Spacey to the BBC as “either very stupid or predatory or … both,” and noted that Spacey had not been drunk during their encounter.
“It seems he was grooming me,” the anonymous source told the BBC.
1986: Kate Edwards
When London performing arts teacher Kate Edwards was 17, she worked as a production assistant for the 1986 Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which Spacey starred alongside his longtime idol Jack Lemmon. Edwards alleged to the BBC that Spacey, then 27, invited her up to his flat for an apparently nonexistent party, where he kissed her. When it became clear he wanted sex, she made her excuses about wanting to leave, alleging that he then “became cold” and told her to “find [her] own way” home.
Edwards said that Spacey subsequently “cut her dead” after the encounter, telling the BBC that she became depressed and eventually had to quit the show because of how “confused, completely isolated, ashamed” she felt over the incident.
1988: Justin Dawes
A man named Justin Dawes told BuzzFeed that he met a 29-year-old Spacey through a Connecticut theater when he was 16 years old and a junior in high school. Spacey allegedly invited Dawes and a friend to hang out at his apartment, where he served them cocktails and showed gay porn. According to BuzzFeed, even though nothing else happened, “at the time, the 16-year-old felt like he ‘should’ve realized’ that Spacey wanted him to come over for reasons related to sex.”
“He knew that I was in high school,” Dawes told BuzzFeed. “It was pretty clear.”
1995: Mark Ebenhoch
Mark Ebenhoch told BuzzFeed that he had been working as a military adviser on the set of Outbreak, in which Spacey played a supporting role, when one of Spacey’s on-set assistants propositioned him on Spacey’s behalf.
“They asked flat out to engage in a sexual act,” Ebenhoch alleged. “It was enough to stun me. It blew me away.” Ebenhoch told BuzzFeed that he rejected the invitation and avoided Spacey for the duration of the production.
1995: anonymous crew member on the film Albino Alligator
The BBC reported that while working on the 1995 film Albino Alligator, which marked Spacey’s film debut, the actor allegedly harassed an anonymous crew member who was 22 years old at the time. According to the anonymous crew member, Spacey initially seemed friendly and took an interest in his career, but progressed to “creepy” behavior such as giving him an unwanted massage.
“On one of the last days of shooting … he sat down next to me and put his thigh against mine and put his hand on my thigh and moved it towards my inner thigh,” the man alleged. “I felt trapped. I felt harassed, sexually harassed.”
1995-2015: at least 20 young men, the Old Vic Theatre
Spacey’s involvement with the Old Vic Theatre began in the mid-’90s, when he was involved in several highly acclaimed productions there, spearheaded a successful fundraising campaign to keep the theater from closing, and became one of its most significant donors. He ultimately assumed the position of artistic director for the Old Vic, a role he held from 2004 to 2015.
After the allegations against Spacey came to light, the Old Vic set up a confidential email to receive tips and reports about the actor, while claiming in a public statement that it was “deeply dismayed” to hear about the allegations. Meanwhile, multiple allegations concerning Spacey’s behavior while at the Old Vic began to surface.
On November 1, 2017, Mexican actor Robert Cavazos discussed past encounters at the Old Vic with Spacey in a Facebook post (written in Spanish). Cavazos alleged that Spacey touched him inappropriately numerous times, and said that Spacey would frequently grope men while hanging out at the Old Vic’s bar.
“It appears that all that was needed was a male under the age of 30 for Mr. Spacey to feel free to touch us,” Cavazos wrote. “It was so common that it turned into a local joke (in very bad taste).”
On November 3, 2017, BuzzFeed reported that an anonymous actor recently contacted the Old Vic to report that Spacey “repeatedly sexually assaulted him in a public place in 2013.” No further detail was reported, but the actor told BuzzFeed that Spacey treated the theater “like a playground.”
On November 16, 2017, the Old Vic announced that it had received 20 “personal testimonies” through its investigation into Spacey. These claims reportedly ranged “from behaviour that made people feel uncomfortable all the way through to sexually inappropriate behaviour.” The claims spanned 1995 through 2013, with most occurring before 2009. All of the claims involved young men, all of whom were over the age of 18 at the time of the alleged incidents.
The Associated Press reported that the Old Vic had urged 14 of the 20 respondents to go to the police with their allegations, but couldn’t confirm whether any of them had done so.
2003: director Tony Montana
Director Tony Montana was the second person to publicly come forward with an allegation against Spacey. On October 31, 2017, he told the gossip website Radar Online that Spacey physically assaulted him in 2003, when Montana was in his 30s. Montana alleges that Spacey approached him in a bar, groped him, and said, “this designates ownership,” as he did so. “I had PTSD for six months after” the incident, Montana said.
Date unspecified: anonymous journalist
An anonymous journalist gave a detailed account to BuzzFeed of an incident that occurred in London during the early 2000s, when the journalist was in his early 20s. The journalist was assigned to interview Spacey at his office at the Old Vic; after the interview, Spacey allegedly invited the journalist to hang out with him and some friends at a club, where he allegedly groped the journalist “aggressively” despite repeated attempts to get him to stop. When the journalist told Spacey he was in a committed relationship with a woman, it seemed to make no difference; when he tried to leave, Spacey implored him to stay. “He had somehow convinced himself that this was a sexual liaison that we both wanted,” the journalist told BuzzFeed.
Finally, the journalist said, Spacey tried to prevent him from leaving:
[Spacey] was screaming in my face outside of the main bar area, red-faced, spit flying out of his mouth, screaming at me with fury because I didn’t want to fuck him. He was actually saying that I did want to and I was a coward. That was his tactic. It was unbelievable.
The journalist said he reported the incident to his editor, who confirmed as much to BuzzFeed, and the story ultimately ran without a byline. The journalist told BuzzFeed that a major concern that prevented him from going public with the incident was his fear of outing Spacey as gay. “Being closeted has for him enabled him to use this privacy claim as a shield against anybody looking closely at his actual behavior,” he said.
2007: bartender Kris Nixon
According to the BBC, Belfast bartender Kris Nixon met Spacey in 2007 while Nixon was working at a cocktail bar in London near the Old Vic. In a videotaped interview, Nixon told the BBC that after attending a party at Spacey’s penthouse, “Kevin Spacey sat down next to me on a sofa, then reached over and grabbed my penis,” declaring to Nixon, “I could fuck you better than [Nixon’s girlfriend, who was also in attendance].”
Nixon claimed that he left the party immediately but encountered Spacey again two weeks later while he was on shift at the bar where he’d first met Spacey. Nixon alleges that Spacey followed him down to a basement storeroom and cornered him, grabbing him by the waistband and offering to “make it up to [him].”
“I didn’t speak out at the time because I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” Nixon said, adding that he “[didn’t] want to risk getting fired.” Nixon told the BBC that by coming forward, Rapp has made it possible for others to speak out. “Now that it’s become clear that this is a pattern of behavior,” he said, “I feel I have a responsibility to say what happened, so that other people, who maybe don’t yet feel in a position to speak out, feel empowered to do so.”
2007: writer Ari Behn
Ari Behn is a Norwegian writer who was married to Princess Märtha Louise when he attended the 14th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo in December 2007. The concert was hosted by Spacey and Uma Thurman.
Afterward, according to an on-air interview Behn gave to the Norwegian radio network P4 on December 5, 2017, Spacey and Behn attended an afterparty at a nightclub, where they were seated next to each other.
“After five minutes, he says, ‘Hey, let’s go out and have a cigarette,’” Behn recalled, saying that Spacey then reached “under the table” and groped his genitals.
Behn said he responded with, “Eh, maybe later,” and declined the invitation. He seemed to laugh off the incident.
2008: actor Harry Dreyfuss
In a piece he wrote for BuzzFeed, actor Harry Dreyfuss alleged that Spacey groped him when he was 18 years old, recalling an incident that took place while he was helping his father, the actor Richard Dreyfuss, rehearse for a play at Spacey’s London apartment.
In a very detailed account, Dreyfuss describes how Spacey touched him inappropriately throughout the rehearsal, and describes his failed attempts to stop Spacey from fondling him without disrupting the rehearsal or alerting his father. Thinking back to what was going through his head at the time, Dreyfuss writes:
Looking into his eyes, I gave the most meager shake of my head that I could manage. I was trying to warn him without alerting my dad, who still had his eyes glued to the page. I thought I was protecting everyone. I was protecting my dad’s career. I was protecting Kevin, who my dad surely would have tried to punch. I was protecting myself, because I thought one day I’d want to work with this man. Kevin had no reaction and kept his hand there. My eyes went back to the script and I kept reading.
“In retrospect, what disgusts me about Kevin was how safe he did feel,” Dreyfuss concluded. “He knew he could fondle me in a room with my father and that I wouldn’t say a word.”
Spacey denied Dreyfuss’s allegations via his lawyer.
2008: anonymous 23-year-old man
According to Variety in 2017, Scotland Yard began an investigation into a claim that a man who is believed to be Spacey assaulted a 23-year-old bartender in London in 2008. “On 1 November, City of London police referred an allegation of sexual assault to the Metropolitan police service,” a Scotland Yard spokesperson said in a press statement released November 3, 2017. “It is alleged a man assaulted another man in 2008 in Lambeth. Officers from the child abuse and sexual offences command are investigating.”
Though Scotland Yard has not named Spacey as the alleged perpetrator, Variety notes that the incident being investigated took place in the South London neighborhood of Lambeth, where Spacey maintains a home. The details, which were first reported by the British tabloid the Sun, allegedly involve the victim approaching Spacey to ask for help with his career, passing out after smoking weed at Spacey’s apartment, and waking up to find Spacey performing oral sex on him. The man, who is now 32, is said to have reported the incident to police in early November 2017, after other allegations against Spacey became public.
2010: Daniel Beal
A British bartender named Daniel Beal told the Sun that Spacey flashed his genitals at him in 2010, while Beal was working at a bar in West Sussex. Beal, then 19, photographed himself at the time wearing an expensive watch, which was allegedly given to him by Spacey shortly after the incident, apparently to buy his silence.
2016: the teenage son of journalist Heather Unruh
Heather Unruh, a former news anchor for the Boston news outlet WVCB, was one of the first people to mention Spacey in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, when her October 13, 2017, tweet that the actor had assaulted a loved one went viral. At a press conference in Boston on November 8, 2017, Unruh provided details of the assault, alleging that Spacey came on to her then-18-year-old son at a restaurant in Nantucket.
According to Unruh, Spacey encountered her son at Nantucket’s Club Car Restaurant in July 2016. Spacey “bought [her underage son] drink after drink after drink,” then sexually assaulted him. “Spacey stuck his hand inside my son’s pants and grabbed his genitals,” Unruh alleged. “My son’s efforts to shift his body to remove Spacey’s hand were only momentarily successful. My son panicked, he froze. He was intoxicated.”
Unruh claims that after Spacey repeatedly pressured her son to attend a party with him, Spacey got up to go to the bathroom, at which point a woman at the bar approached her “very shaken” son and told him to “run.” Her son left, and disclosed the incident to his sister and Unruh later that night.
Unruh stated that her son had filed a police report against Spacey with the Nantucket Police Department. A spokesperson for the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s Office told Boston.com that “an individual has provided information to the Nantucket Police regarding an allegation of an indecent assault and battery” but did not provide further details. On December 24, 2018, news broke that Spacey would face arraignment on a count of sexual assault in Nantucket District Court. The hearing will occur on January 7, 2019.
2012 to 2017: multiple anonymous cast and crew members on the set of Netflix’s House of Cards
On November 2, 2017, CNN reported that multiple cast and crew members working on the House of Cards set allege that Spacey engaged in harassment and created a toxic environment during the production. A total of eight sources told CNN that Spacey’s behavior was “predatory,” or that he harassed or initiated nonconsensual physical contact with production crew or had targeted young men. One anonymous crew member said Spacey routinely touched him inappropriately throughout the six seasons he worked on set, and that he did not “feel comfortable” asking Spacey to stop.
Additionally, a former House of Cards production assistant who reported Spacey’s behavior to a supervisor told CNN that a supervisor resolved the problem by attempting to make sure Spacey and the assistant were segregated while on set. Months after the implementation of this practice, Spacey allegedly sexually assaulted the production assistant while they were driving in a car together. The crew member did not report the assault.
Netflix and the Old Vic Theatre responded to the allegations against Spacey by distancing themselves from the actor
Many current and former employers and associates of Spacey’s have been quick to denounce the allegations made against the actor, and to attempt to distance themselves from reports of his alleged behavior.
One day after BuzzFeed published Rapp’s allegations against Spacey, the Hollywood Reporter confirmed that House of Cards would end with its sixth season, noting that “official word on its conclusion, which has been in the works since the summer, comes at a problematic time for Spacey.”
Netflix, along with House of Cards’ production studio Media Rights Capital, latersuspended production on the show entirely. “MRC and Netflix have decided to suspend production on House of Cards season six until further notice,” read a joint press statement, “to give us time to review the current situation and to address any concerns of our cast and crew.”
MRC has claimed to have no knowledge of outstanding or unresolved complaints made against Spacey. In a statement to CNN, the company claimed to have handled any incidents brought to its attention:
[D]uring our first year of production in 2012, someone on the crew shared a complaint about a specific remark and gesture made by Kevin Spacey. Immediate action was taken following our review of the situation and we are confident the issue was resolved promptly to the satisfaction of all involved. Mr. Spacey willingly participated in a training process and since that time MRC has not been made aware of any other complaints involving Mr. Spacey.
Netflix told CNN that “Netflix was just made aware of one incident, five years ago, that we were informed was resolved swiftly,” but that it was “not aware of any other incidents involving Kevin Spacey on-set.” Netflix stated it was committed to “maintain[ing] a safe and respectful working environment,” while MRC announced that it had established “an anonymous complaint hotline, crisis counselors, and sexual harassment legal advisors for the crew.”
However, since the CNN report, multiple anonymous House of Cards crew members alleged to BuzzFeed that Spacey’s behavior was widely known on set, with many people, including series creator Beau Willimon, knowingly turning a blind eye to a pattern of harassment.One source told BuzzFeed that the production team treated Spacey’s “flirtatious behavior toward crew and cast … like a joke,” adding, “He touches and feels anyone he wants to.”Willimon has denied all knowledge of Spacey’s behavior, including the on-set incident reported by CNN. The source BuzzFeed spoke with called Willimon’s claim “100% bullshit.”
Meanwhile, since the news concerning Spacey has surfaced, the Old Vic has battled accusations that staff members of the theater knew about the actor’s alleged longstanding pattern of harassment and predatory behavior but did nothing to stop it.
According to the Guardian, multiple Old Vic employees witnessed Spacey behaving inappropriately at the theater company during his tenure as artistic director, quoting one anonymous former staffer who said, “We were all involved in keeping it quiet. I witnessed him groping men many times in all sorts of different situations.”
After the Old Vic concluded its investigation into Spacey, in which it learned of 20 allegations of inappropriate behavior, its current artistic director, Matthew Warchus, said in a public statement that “These allegations have been a shock and a disturbing surprise to many of us. It is incorrect, unfair and irresponsible to say that everybody knew.”
Yet the theater also acknowledged in that statementthat multiple staff did witness incidents at the times they occurred, noting, “Staff who observed this behaviour claimed they were unclear about how to respond; in some cases they did not consider allegations of misconduct to be serious and, where they clearly did, they said they did not feel confident that The Old Vic would take those allegations seriously given who he was.”
“What we have learnt is how better to call out this behaviour in future,” Warchus said. “These findings will help not only The Old Vic but our industry as a whole, as together we rapidly evolve an intelligent new standard of protection and support in and around the workplace.”
The consequences Spacey is facing so far have been wide-ranging and immediate — but so far, he largely stands alone
On some level, Rapp’s accusation against Spacey served as a litmus test to determine if the cultural shifts heralded by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the growth of the #MeToo movement could impact the careers of A-list actors. Spacey did in fact experience a number of striking and swift career setbacks:
Netflix suspended production of House of Cards, and Varietyreported on November 3, 2017, that House of Cards producers were considering killing off Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, for the show’s final season. Netflix later released a statement declaring, “Netflix will not be involved with any further production of House of Cards that includes Kevin Spacey. We will continue to work with MRC during this hiatus time to evaluate our path forward as it relates to the show.” Netflix additionally scrapped the release of Gore, a planned 2018 Netflix movie with Spacey in the lead. The production ultimately went ahead with its final sixth season after killing off Spacey’s character offscreen and promoting Robin Wright to solo lead.
The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which produces the annual International Emmy Awards (a global edition of the Emmys), rescinded its previously announced plans to honor Spacey with an International Emmy Founders Award, an honor given to “an individual who crosses cultural boundaries to touch humanity.”
Spacey’s representatives said in a brief statement released to the Hollywood Reporter on November 1, 2017, that Spacey “is taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment.” Later that month, he was reportedly spotted at the same elite Arizona treatment center for sex addiction that Harvey Weinstein briefly retreated to after the allegations against him broke.
But Spacey is far from the only alleged sexual predator in Hollywood, or the only one who’s led a successful career despite his behavior apparently being an open secret. And while some of the most powerful men in the industry — including Weinstein and former CBS head Les Moonves — have seen their careers topple, others remain largely unscathed by allegations against them. And as Spacey’s video indicates, he seems to think he deserves a comeback despite the overwhelming number of people who’ve spoken out against him.
It’s highly unlikely he’ll get one. But his confidence is a telling statement about an entertainment industry that for so long has allowed powerful men to operate with impunity — one that allowed him to allegedly prey on targets for decades with no repercussions, and that could still harbor many more Kevin Spaceys in its midst.
Vox has reached out to Spacey’s representatives for comment but has received no response.
Update 12/24/18: Updated to include information about the felony sexual assault charge against Spacey and the video he released.
Sick of the typical holiday music? Try this playlist — which has over a week of tunes.
If you’re sick of hearing the same Christmas music over and over and over again — and, let’s face it, you probably are — then let me propose an alternate solution to just white-knuckling it until December 26, or whenever your local grocery store stops playing the holiday hits.
It’s a Spotify playlist full of Christmas music.
No, no, no, hear me out! Created by the King of Jingaling, a.k.a. Brad Ross-MacLeod, a.k.a. the blogger behind FaLaLaLaLa.com (long the best internet repository for discussion of forgotten Christmas music, and a hub that connects a bunch of other essential Christmas music websites like Ernie, Not Bert and Hip Christmas), this playlist collects the Christmas songs you know, but in versions you’ve maybe never heard before.
There are 3,600 songs on this list. Impressively, it amounts to a full week of music. Wrote the King in a post introducing it:
It leans heavily toward classic music from the 1940s to the 1970s; classic crooners and divas, ‘beautiful music’ orchestras, ‘Now Sound’ vocal groups and combos. But I wanted some more variety so there’s some jazz, classic rock, a smattering of subtle electronica, some international flavor, etc. I wanted a balance of the nostalgic and familiar with a bit of the modern and unexpected. As I’ve listened to it over the past several days I feel like it’s a nice mix and even I’m surprised by a song now and then.
The King of Jingaling has listened to more Christmas music than almost anybody I’m aware of. As he mentions above, his tastes skew toward the second half of the 20th century, but he’s compiled a massive variety of music within the playlist, which is called FaLaLaLaLa GREAT BIG Christmas Variety Shuffle List.
The featured selections include versions of songs you know from artists you’ve never heard of — like a disco-infused “Little Drummer Boy” and a variety of tunes from the Seeburg Library, an easy-listening competitor to the more famous Muzak — as well as some versions of songs you know from artists you have heard of, like the Jackson Five and Perry Como and Harry Connick, Jr.
Let’s face it: The problem with most Christmas music is that even if you like a given Christmas song, there are only two — maybe three — versions that get airplay on the radio and in public spaces, over and over, year after year. The King of Jingaling’s big list combats this problem by pulling in versions you’ve never heard of the songs you love, with a wide variety of artists and musical styles to keep the party going.
So whether you have a holiday party to attend, presents to wrap, or last-minute shopping to do, put on this playlist. It’ll make your day that much more jolly, without driving you to desperately wish for the cold, snowy days of January and their decided lack of Christmas songs.
Parts of the government shutdown on Friday night and by Saturday afternoon there was no sign of a deal coming together to reopen them.
There’s been no progress on the center of the fight. President Donald Trump is demanding $5 billion in funding for a wall at the southern border. He’s refused to sign any version of a funding bill that doesn’t include it, and Democrats have refused to vote for any spending bill that funds the wall. Meanwhile, hardline conservatives, who have had Trump’s ear, are pushing the president further from compromise. The Senate adjourned Saturday with no plans to reconvene until after Christmas.
For the shutdown to end, Republican leaders say Trump has to negotiate with Democrats. But there’s no indication that the president is interested in coming to the table. On Saturday, he tweeted that he would host a meeting at the White House that did not include either of the two top Democratic leaders. Conservative hardliners, however, were reportedly invited.
Even an offer from Vice President Mike Pence, who came to Capitol Hill Friday to broker a deal, fell short. His suggestion — $1.6 billion in wall funding — which Democrats previously signaled openness to, saw push back from hardline House Republicans.
At this point, it’s unclear how long this shutdown will last — though, in one scenario, it could go as long as January 3 when control of the House shifts to Democrats.
Much of the government remains open. But nine federal departments, as well as a number of other agencies, making up roughly 25 percent of the federal government, have shut down, including the Department of Justice, State, and most contentiously, the Department of Homeland Security, which has purview over construction on the southern border. The shut down impacts hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
Many government agencies operate with a skeleton crew over the holidays, but if the fight drags on longer, it could start to significantly impact government functions. This is actually the third government shutdown this year, and with a Democratic majority coming into the House in January, there may be more to come.
This shutdown threat is all about Trump
There’s not a lot of gray area about the central cause of the shutdown. Trump preemptively and explicitly took the credit for the shutdown during an explosive Oval Office meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last week.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. … I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it,” Trump said at the meeting, dashing any Republican hopes of using Democrats as their cover.
But he changed course at the last minute this week — putting the shutdown on Democrats in a tweet on Friday.
When the Senate passed a bipartisan short-term spending bill Wednesday that didn’t fund the wall, Trump said he wouldn’t sign it before the House voted. So with pressure to heed to the president’s demands, the House passed a different funding bill Thursday, with only Republican support, that included $5.7 billion for the wall.
This is far from the first time Trump has said he’d veto a spending bill over the border wall but this time he was serious. Many wondered why he decided to pick this fight now, while Republicans still control both chambers of Congress rather than wait to go up against a Democrat-controlled House, when he could effectively shift the blame.
Part of this calculus is that a Republican-dominated House is much more likely to help Trump get closer to what he wants. Another reason might be related to the fact that Republican voters aren’t too troubled by the possibility of a shutdown as long as it’s the result of Trump standing his ground.
While government shutdowns have historically been viewed as wasteful and a poor reflection on elected leaders, a recent Marist poll found that 65 percent of Republicans were open to a shutdown if it meant that Trump didn’t compromise on a border wall, The Washington Post reports.
Who is affected by the shutdown
Depending on the duration of the partial shutdown, hundreds of thousands of federal employees could be furloughed, while some federal agencies will limit the services they provide.
Since this is a partial shutdown, only agencies that fall under the parts of the government that have yet to be funded will see any impact.
Because National Parks are overseen by the Department of Interior, which is still waiting on funding, they could experience limited operations even though many are likely to remain open, for example. Other services like veterans benefits will not observe any effects because these programs were already funded earlier this year.
Additionally, mandatory programs including Medicare are due to keep running, though new sign-ups could see some delay.
There’s also a somewhat confusing political twist in this partial shutdown.
Among the slew of “essential” government workers who will keep working, despite the shutdown, are active duty members of the military as well as the majority of those working in U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including border patrol.
Both groups are on deck to continue reporting to work over the holidays, though they won’t receive their backpay until the government officially reopens. Ironically, this would mean that Trump is basically calling on both border patrol and members of the military, to spend the holiday season working without immediate pay.
“If a lapse in appropriations were to take place, a majority of DHS activities would continue,” an administration official told CNN. “For instance, those protecting our borders with the Customs and Border Patrol will continue to do so.”
What and who will keep working
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid
United States Postal Service
Veterans hospitals and benefits
Food stamps (The agency has limited funds, but the programs will continue operating in the short-term.)
Active duty military
Air traffic control and TSA
What will be closed or could see limited operations
The IRS and tax refunds
State Department services (Passports and visas will continue to be issued though some services could be closed.)
Environmental and food and drug inspections
What happens now?
While there’s still an apparent chasm between Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers are able to end the shutdown by inking some kind of agreement on the outstanding spending bills.
As Golshan and Scott have noted, they have a couple different options at their disposal:
[They] can 1) pass the appropriations bills, likely in an minibus, which just crams together  appropriations bills into one spending package; 2) pass a “continuing resolution” (CR), which would fund the government at its current levels, basically buying more time to negotiate the actual appropriations bills; or 3) pass a “CRomnibus,” which is a combination of the two, extending the deadline on certain more contentious appropriations — like for the Department of Homeland Security — and passing a spending bill on the rest.
Earlier this week, lawmakers seemed close to averting a partial shutdown after the Senate passed a continuing resolution that would keep the government fully funded through February 8th. A vocal contingent of House Republicans were displeased with this option, however, and urged Trump to maintain his opposition — something which he clearly has.
Until Trump and lawmakers agree on a new deal, this partial shutdown could continue to drag on as the Christmas holiday rapidly approaches, sending this lame-duck Congress out on anything but a high note.
A government shutdown for the holidays; an election postponed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Welcome to the last issue of Sentences until 2019! Starting tomorrow, December 23, we’ll be taking a holiday break until January 2. But to tide you over, you can sign up for Vox’s Future Perfect newsletter here, and twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges.
We’re wishing you all a happy and healthy end to 2018. See you next year!
Four nights before Christmas, no deal in the House
The federal government appears headed for a partial shutdown after President Trump and Congress could not reach a spending deal before a midnight deadline. [NYT / Emily Cochrane]
Trump is now trying to blame the looming shutdown on Democrats. But last week, he told Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck. … I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.” [Vox / German Lopez]
There actually is one way that Senate Republicans could have passed a budget deal without Democratic votes: the “nuclear option,” which bypasses the Senate filibuster to let legislation pass with a simple majority. Since Republicans control a majority of the Senate, that would have been enough. But enough Senate Republicans rejected the idea after Trump proposed it. [The Hill / Jordain Carney]
Some Republicans are now working with Democrats on a deal that could maybe pass the House and Senate, which would include more border security funding but not nearly as much as Trump wants. [The Hill / Alexander Bolton]
This is only a partial shutdown, so some agencies will remain open. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the US Postal Service will also be uninterrupted. But other federal agencies will need to scale down or close their doors completely, including the IRS and national parks. [Vox / Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou]
DRC postpones presidential elections, again
The Democratic Republic of Congo has pushed back long-awaited elections, scheduled to take place this Sunday, until December 30. This is the latest in a literal years-long delay; Congo has been postponing these elections since 2016. [NPR / Colin Dwyer]
It deals another blow to democracy advocates and opposition parties in the DRC, a country that has yet to see a peaceful democratic transition of power since independence in 1960. The current president, Joseph Kabila, has ruled since 2001. He maxed out his term as president in 2016, but delayed elections and so remained in power. [NYT / Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura]
The head of the DRC’s election commission blamed the delay on a bunch of issues, including the ongoing Ebola crisis in war-torn parts of the country and the destruction of thousands of voting machines. [Washington Post / Max Bearak]
Yes, that’s right. A fire in Kinshasa, the capital, destroyed ballots and more than 7,000 of the city’s 10,000 voting machines. Arson is suspected, and opposition leaders have blamed Kabila’s ruling party. [Guardian / Jason Burke]
This latest delay will likely increase tensions in the DRC, particularly in Kinshasa. Government security forces frequently cracked down on opposition supporters, who’ve protested past delays in elections. Last week, security forces reportedly killed seven people in the capital. [Al Jazeera]
If the elections do happen, they will pit Kabila’s handpicked candidate and former minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary against two main opposition figures: Félix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party, and former Exxon executive Martin Fayulu. [CFR / Claire Felter]
Many Congolese, however, fear that the elections will be rigged and Shadary will win no matter what. It’s already leading to fears of violence. [Foreign Policy / Kristen Chick]
On a darker note, “Pandemic Trail” is a new game from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the 1918 flu epidemic. It’s like Oregon Trail, except instead of trying to reach Oregon, you’re trying to get through the day without getting the flu (and likely dying). [CDC]
Aquaman, Warner Bros.’ marine opera superhero flick, has one post-credits scene. The scene calls back to the movie while simultaneously setting up the potential conflict for a future Aquaman sequel, should one get made.
Credits scenes have become a tradition in superhero movies, and are used by studios and filmmakers to reward the fervent fandoms that follow comics-based properties. Marvel, for example, has frequently used them to tease future villains and heroes, and to hint at upcoming movies; indeed, every Marvel Studios movie in recent memory has had at least one post-credits scene.
So Aquaman having a credits scene at all is somewhat notable in itself. On top of that, it’s a pretty juicy one.
In Aquaman’s credits scene, Black Manta is saved and gets some help
In the film, Black Manta is treated as a secondary villain to King Orm. Early in the movie, Black Manta and Aquaman clash after Aquaman rescues a Russian sub that Manta tries to hijack. Then we see him get an under-the-table weapons upgrade from King Orm, who believes he can use Manta to do his dirty work and dispatch Aquaman — Manta uses his new weaponry to fashion a laser beam-firing helmet for himself. Finally, in the film’s third act, Mera and Aquaman, while traveling to find the magic trident, catch up with Manta in Sicily, defeat him, break his helmet, and throw him into the ocean.
That’s where Aquaman’s post-credits scene picks up.
Manta is floating unconscious in the sea and gets rescued by men on a boat. It’s not entirely clear who his saving him, but as we see shots of the boat’s interior, we see that whoever it is has a deep interest in Aquaman’s identity — various newspaper clippings about Aquaman are pinned to a board and connected with string in a heavy-handed, “whoever did this is a conspiracy theorist” type of way.
When Manta wakes up, it’s revealed that his rescuer is Doctor Stephen Shin (Randall Park). In theAquaman comics, Shin is a genius-level scientist with ties to Aquaman; he appears in a couple brief moments during the movie, as a scientific expert and researcher working on land who believes Atlantis is real.
The credits scene shows Manta and Shin making a pact: Shin will help Manta find out Aquaman’s true identity and repair Manta’s laser beam-firing helmet and Manta will reveal the secret of Atlantis to him.
The credits scene ends with that agreement, possibly hinting that Manta will be the villain of an upcoming Aquaman sequel, if a sequel comes to pass. It’s pretty straightforward, as Manta vows revenge on Aquaman and Shin gets confirmation that his theories about Atlantis’s existence are correct.
But with that said, it wouldn’t be too strange, considering how easily Aquaman brushes Manta aside in Aquaman, for Manta and Shin to become the secondary villains in a future movie.
“Medicare-for-all” has become a rallying cry on the left, but the term doesn’t capture the full scope of options Democrats are considering to insure all (or at least a lot more) Americans. Case in point: There are half a dozen proposals in Congress that envision very different health care systems.
“Democrats ran on health care,” says Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz. “We now control one chamber of Congress. We have an opportunity and an obligation to demonstrate what we’d do if we were in charge of both chambers. We have an obligation to hear from experts and figure out the best path forward.”
We spent the past month reading through the congressional plans to expand Medicare (and a few to expand Medicaid, too) as well as proposals at major think tanks that are influential in liberal policymaking. We talked to the legislators and congressional staff who wrote those plans, as well as the policy experts who have analyzed them.
These plans are the universe of ideas that Democrats will draw from as they flesh out their vision for the future of American health care. While the party doesn’t agree on one plan now, they do have plenty of options to choose from — and many decisions to make.
The eight plans fall into two categories. There are three that would eliminate private insurance and cover all Americans through the government. Then there are five that would allow all Americans to buy into government insurance (like Medicare or Medicaid) if they wanted to, or continue to buy private insurance.
The bills we reviewed are:
We learned these plans are similar in that they envision more Americans enrolling in public health plans. They would all give the government a greater role in everything from setting health prices to deciding what benefits get included in an insurance plan. Experts say all these bills would almost certainly create an insurance system that does better to serve Americans with high health care costs.
“If you’re really sick and have high drug costs, it would be hard not to benefit from these bills,” says Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation who recently co-authored a report comparing the different Democratic plans to expand public coverage.
But the Democrats’ plans differ significantly in how they handle important decisions, like which public health program to expand and how aggressively to extend the reach of government. Some would completely eliminate private health insurance, eventually moving all Americans to government-run coverage, whereas others still see a role for companies providing coverage to workers.
Some bills require significant tax increases to pay for the expansion of benefits — while others ask those signing up for government insurance to pay the costs.
And while Democrats aren’t under any illusion that they’ll pass Medicare-for-all this Congress, they see the next two years as key to figuring out where consensus in the party lies. More plans are coming too: Jacob Hacker of Yale University, for example, has outlined the contours of a plan called Medicare Part E, and House legislation is in the works to flesh out the details.
“We want to have public hearings on this, we want to see movement on the issue,” says one Democratic House aide working on this legislation. “The Senate is still Republican but right now, Democrats have the opportunity to build support, have public hearings, and help move this idea along and educate members.”
Here are the key questions those hearings and that education will grapple with.
How many people get covered?
Bottom line: Some plans from the Democrats would cover all Americans — while others would provide insurance to more but leave some number of people uninsured.
In a way, this is the fundamental question. Even under the Affordable Care Act, 30 million Americans don’t have health insurance. The left believes health care is a human right, and mainstream Democrats aren’t far behind them. The whole reason Democrats are ready to take up health care reform again so soon after the ACA is to fix this problem.
Medicare-for-all (Senate and House): Every single American would be covered by a government insurance plan, after a short phase-in period.
Medicare and Medicaid buy-ins (congressional plans): Millions more Americans would likely be covered, but experts don’t expect the various buy-in plans to achieve universal coverage. They would still, after all, be optional programs.
Medicare Extra for All (Center for American Progress): The health care plan from the leading Democratic think tank would achieve universal coverage for all legal residents, through a combination of private and public insurance — at least for the next few decades. It eventually foresees getting to a very similar level of coverage as the Medicare-for-all proposals in Congress, by enrolling all newborns into a government health plan and taking steps that would diminish the role of employer-sponsored coverage.
Healthy America (Urban Institute’s Linda Blumberg, John Holahan, and Stephen Zuckerman): This center-left plan from three Urban Institute fellows is explicitly not a plan for universal coverage, by attempting to work within certain political constraints. But it would, according to Urban’s estimates, cut the number of uninsured by 16 million in its first year.
A big part of the remaining uninsured would be undocumented immigrants. The plan’s authors said the program could be adjusted to cover that population but didn’t think there’d be political will to do so.
What happens to employer-sponsored insurance?
Bottom line: Democrats are split over whether expanded Medicare should make space for employer-sponsored plans — or get rid of them completely.
Nearly half of all Americans get their insurance at work — and Democrats’ various health care plans make different decisions about whether that would continue.
Currently, the American health care system provides employers with a big incentive to provide coverage: Those benefits are completely tax-free. This means companies’ dollars stretch further when they buy workers’ health benefits than when they pay workers’ wages.
This, however, creates an uneven playing field. Fortune 500 companies get, in effect, a huge federal subsidy to insure their workers, while an individual who doesn’t get coverage through their job and makes too much money to receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act doesn’t get any advantageous treatment under the tax code.
Medicare-for-all (Senate and House): Both the Medicare-for-all plans would make the biggest change and eliminate employer-sponsored coverage completely. Under these options, all Americans who currently get insurance at work would transition to one big government health care plan.
The question of work-based insurance is prickliest for the Medicare buy-in plans. Broadly speaking, under those bills, more Americans would be allowed to purchase a public insurance plan under the Medicare umbrella. Everybody who currently buys insurance on the individual market would be allowed to buy a Medicare plan, under each of the buy-in bills.
But they differ in important ways in how much they would let people leave their current job-based insurance for the new government plan.
The “Choose Medicare” Act (Merkley and Murphy): Merkley described his bill with Murphy as, potentially, a glide path to true single-payer Medicare-for-all. Under their Medicare buy-in framework, workers could leave their company’s insurance for the new public plan — but only if their employer decides to allow it. Otherwise, they’d be shut out.
(The bill does include a provision, however, allowing workers to keep the government plan once they sign up, even after they leave their current job.)
We asked Merkley why they left the decision up to the employers, not the employees. He pointed to a workers’ compensation program that had been successful in Oregon that was modeled the same way. He’s also worried about adverse selection (employers sending sick employees to the public plan while healthier workplaces stay in the private market).
Lastly, he emphasized the workers who transition to new jobs or go for a period without coverage would have a chance to sign up for Medicare and then keep that plan even after they get a new job.
“Workers can go to their employer and say, ‘I really would prefer to be in the public option,’” Merkley says. “We wanted to avoid the situation of employers pushing people out.”
The CHOICE Act (Schakowsky and Whitehouse): Small employers who are currently eligible to buy insurance through the ACA’s marketplaces would be allowed to participate in the Medicare buy-in. Workers at larger firms would be frozen out, however.
Medicare X (Bennet, Kaine and Higgins): Likewise, small employers eligible for ACA coverage could buy into Medicare under this legislation, but large employers could not. Medicare X would actually be limited to customers in Obamacare markets that had only one insurer or particularly high costs, for the program’s first few years, before expanding to the rest of the individual market nationwide.
Think tank plans
Medicare Extra for All (Center for American Progress): This plan does let employers continue to offer coverage to their workers so long as it meets certain federal standards. At the same time, it would give employers an alluring, simpler option: stop offering coverage and instead pay a payroll tax roughly equivalent to what they currently spend on health coverage.
As to how alluring that plan would be, that depends a lot on how generous this new Medicare Extra program is. A generous plan with low premiums would likely lure many away from their employer-sponsored coverage, whereas a skimpier plan with higher premiums could convince workers to stick with what they already have. These are policy details that aren’t currently specified in the CAP plan.
What’s more, Medicare Extra makes another policy decision that would erode employer-sponsored coverage: It automatically enrolls all newborns into the public program. That means a new generation of Americans likely won’t get coverage through their parents’ workplaces — and would assure the Medicare plan a constantly growing subscriber base.
Healthy America (Urban Institute): The Urban Institute explicitly designed its Healthy America plan with the goal of disrupting the large employer market as little as possible. They expect only lower-wage workers whose current insurance isn’t very good anyway to move over into the brand new insurance marketplaces that would be set up under their plan.
Those markets would combine the Medicaid population with the people currently covered by Obamacare but more or less leave people who get insurance through their jobs alone.
“That’s a real barrier to doing anything big,” John Holahan at Urban said. “Most people with employer plans are reasonably happy with them.”
What public program will expand?
Bottom line: The vast majority of proposals expand Medicare, the plan that covers Americans over 65. But there is one option that would expand Medicaid, the plan that covers low-income Americans — and another option that creates a new government program entirely.
The American government already finances two major health coverage plans: Medicare and Medicaid. Taken together, these two programs cover one-third of all Americans: 19 percent of Americans get their coverage from Medicare, and 14 percent from Medicaid.
What’s more, both of these programs are popular. One recent poll found that 77 percent of Americans think Medicare is a “very important” program. Voters have recently given a boost to Medicaid, too: Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah all passed ballot initiatives that will expand the program in their states to thousands of low-income Americans.
Given the popularity and size of Medicare and Medicaid, nearly all the Democrats’ proposals use these programs as a base for universal coverage, changing the rules to make more people eligible. But there are differences in which programs they pick, and one plan that starts a new government program entirely.
Medicare-for-all, Medicare buy-in, Medicare Extra for All: As their names imply, all these plans use Medicare as the base program for expanding health insurance coverage. Medicare is, after all, the only major health program run exclusively by the federal government (Medicaid is run jointly with the states), which can make it an appealing choice for a national coverage expansion.
Traditionally, Democrats have focused on Medicare as a base for expanding coverage. And five of the six legislative proposals we looked at use the program that covers the elderly as the one that would absorb additional enrollees.
Medicaid buy-in (Senate and House bills): Recently, Democrats have begun to eye Medicaid as another option, suggesting that we should focus on expanding the health plan that covers the poor to Americans with higher incomes.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), for example, has offered a bill that would allow every state to let residents buy into Medicaid. A companion bill is offered by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) in the House.
This plan wouldn’t mean moving all Americans into Medicaid — instead, it would give people the option to sign up for the public program, which would presumably offer lower premiums because it would pay doctors and hospitals lower reimbursement rates than private plans typically do.
In an interview with Vox, Schatz said he likes the idea of this Medicaid buy-in because the program has proved popular across the political spectrum. In the 2018 midterms, for example, three red states (Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah) voted to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. “Medicaid is popular in blue, red, and purple states,” he says. “It’s not politically fraught anymore. So it’s a good place to land for progressives who want to make progress for everyone.”
Healthy America (Urban Institute): Rather than rely on any existing program, Healthy America would create a new one. Obamacare and Medicaid would effectively be combined into a brand new insurance market covering upward of 100 million people, and there would be a public insurance plan under the Healthy America brand.
What benefits get covered?
Bottom line: Democrats generally agree that health insurance should cover a wide array of benefits, although there is some variation around how different plans cover long-term care, dental, vision, and abortion.
Every country with a national health care system has to decide what type of medical services it will pay for. Hospital trips and doctor visits are almost certainly included. But there is wide variation on how health care systems cover things like vision, dental, and mental health.
Covering more services mean citizens have more robust access to health care. But that also costs money — and a more generous health care plan is going to require more tax revenue to pay for all that health care.
Even Medicare, as it currently stands, has a relatively limited benefit package. It does not cover prescription drugs, for example, nor does it pay for eyeglasses or long-term care.
Instead, many seniors often take out supplemental policies to pay for those services — or end up selling off their assets to pay for care in a nursing home.
Medicare-for-all (Senate and House)
Both single-payer options envision Medicare covering more benefits than it currently does. The Sanders bill, for example, would change Medicare to cover vision, dental, and prescription drugs, as well as long-term care services as nursing homes. It would also cover a wide breadth of women’s reproductive health services including abortion, a feature that would likely draw controversy.
The House bill covers a slightly different set of benefits but, according to one Democratic House aide, is undergoing revisions to look more similar to the Sanders package. “We want to make sure we’re able to align the coverage services [of our bill] with the Sanders plan,” said the aide, who asked to speak anonymously to discuss the ongoing negotiations.
All three notable Medicare buy-in plans would cover the 10 essential health benefits mandated by Obamacare: outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse services, and prescription drugs. None of them include vision or dental care.
The “Choose Medicare” Act (Merkley and Murphy): This bill covers essential health benefits, as well as the benefits included in Medicare’s current inpatient, outpatient, and prescription drug plans. Abortion and other reproductive services would also be covered.
The CHOICE Act (Schakowsky and Whitehouse): The ACA’s essential health benefits would be covered.
Medicare X (Bennet, Kaine and Higgins): Same. The new public plan would cover the essential health benefits dictated by the 2010 health care reform law.
“The policy would have all the ACA benefits. We’d give HHS the time and seed money to figure this out and price it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told Vox previously. “There are studies, back from 2010, that suggest a public option would not only save money but it would make the markets more competitive.”
Think tank plans
Medicare Extra for All (Center for American Progress): The Medicare Extra plan mandates that all health insurance cover a robust set of benefits including prescription drugs, hospital visits, doctor trips, maternity services, dental, vision, and hearing services.
Healthy America (Urban Institute): The benefits package is again based on Obamacare’s essential health benefits.
How much does it cost enrollees?
Bottom line: Democrats do not agree on whether patients should pay premiums or fees when they go to the doctor. Some plans get rid of all cost sharing, while others (largely those that allow employer-sponsored coverage to continue) keep those features of the current system intact.
Medicare is currently similar to private health insurance in that it expects enrollees to pay a significant share of their medical costs.
The public program, for example, currently charges seniors a $134 monthly premium (and a higher premium for wealthier enrollees). Traditional Medicare also has deductibles and co-insurance. An estimated 80 percent of Medicare enrollees have additional coverage to help cover those costs.
The plans offered by Democrats have really different visions for whether enrollees in a newly expanded Medicare would end up paying these kinds of costs — or if premiums, deductibles, and copayments would become a thing of the past.
Medicare-for-all (Senate and House)
Both Medicare-for-all bills would eliminate cost sharing completely. This means no monthly premiums, no copayments for going to the doctor, and no deductible to meet before coverage kicks in.
The only place where enrollees might pay out of pocket is under the Sanders plan, which does give the government discretion to allow some charges for prescription drugs — but even that would be capped at $200 per year.
This is very similar to how the Canadian health care system works but is actually quite different from European countries. Most countries across the Atlantic actually do require patients to pay something for going to the doctor. In France, for example, patients are expected to pay 30 percent of the cost of their doctor visit — and in the Netherlands, copayments range from $10 to $30.
The senator who rails regularly against “millionaires and billionaires” doesn’t see value in asking those people to pay when they show up at the doctor. They’ll pay more in taxes to finance a system without copayments, but when they go to the doctor, he argues, they ought to be treated the same as the poor.
There is one important common thread through these bills: Premiums would be set to cover 100 percent of the actual medical costs that the government plan expects to cover, as well as any administrative expenses — but nothing more. There would not be any profits or robust executive compensation, as there still is in the private market. Premiums could be adjusted by a limited number of factors: a patient’s age, where they live, the size of their family, and whether they smoke tobacco.
The most notable difference in the buy-in proposal is in how much patients would be expected to pay out of pocket.
The “Choose Medicare” Act (Merkley and Murphy): This is the most generous Medicare buy-in plan. The new government plan would cover 80 percent of health care costs, matching the “gold” plans on the ACA marketplaces. The bill would also add new out-of-pocket caps for the traditional Medicare population, people 65 and older.
The CHOICE Act (Schakowsky and Whitehouse): This bill would offer several versions of the public plan, with varying out-of-pocket costs: They would cover between 60 and 80 percent of expected medical expenses.
Medicare X (Bennet, Kaine and Higgins): By default, the government plan would be offered at two tiers: one that covers 70 percent of medical costs and another that covers 80 percent. The health secretary could also decide to offer health plans covering 60 percent of costs or 90 percent, but it is not required.
Medicaid buy-in (Sen. Schatz and Rep. Lujan): The Schatz proposal would give the states leeway to decide how they want to set premiums, copayments, and deductibles. They would cap premiums at 9.5 percent of a family’s income (a provision that already exists for those covered under Affordable Care Act plans) or the per-enrollee cost of Medicaid buy-in, whichever is less.
Think tank plans
Medicare Extra for All (Center for American Progress): The plan from the center-left think tank would, unlike the congressional Medicare-for-all options, continue having some Americans pay premiums tethered to their incomes. This reduces the tax revenue necessary to finance an expanded Medicare program — but also requires a slightly more complex system that can calculate each family’s premium and collect that payment.
Low-income Americans would be enrolled in Medicare without any premiums. Higher-income Americans would be expected to pay a monthly premium (at most, 10 percent of their income) — and pay deductibles and copayments (the exact amount of these is not set in the CAP plan).
Healthy America (Urban Institute): Premiums would range from 0 percent of a household’s income, for people who make less money, up to 8.5 percent. Nobody would be asked to pay more than that.
The standard health insurance plan under Healthy America would cover 80 percent of medical costs. People with lower incomes would receive additional subsidies to reduce their out-of-pocket obligations, while consumers would also have the option to buy a plan with higher out-of-pocket costs but lower monthly premiums.
How is it paid for?
Bottom line: Most Democrats have focused their energy on figuring out what exactly an expanded Medicare program looks like. Legislators have given significantly less attention to how to pay for these expansions.
Bringing government health care to more Americans usually means finding more government revenue to pay for that expanded coverage. The Affordable Care Act, for example, expanded coverage to millions of people through a wide range of taxes that hit health insurers, medical device manufacturers, hospitals, wealthy Americans, and even tanning salons.
Right now, many of the details around financing remain murky. One reason for that is we don’t actually know how much these different plans would cost; the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t scored any of these plans yet (although there are a few independentestimates of how much the Sanders plan would cost).
Senate: Sanders’s office has released a list of financing options that generally impose higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, such as increased income and estate taxes, establishing a new wealth tax on the top 0.1 percent, and imposing new fees on large banks.
House: Over on the House side, aides say that while they are currently working on revisions to HR 676, that focuses mostly on updating the benefits package — and less on deciding how to pay for the package. They do not currently expect to release a financing plan in early 2019.
“Let’s get our policy straight first and then look for suggestions on financing,” says one Democratic House aide involved in the process. “It’s possible we might offer some ideas on financing, but that’s still under debate.”
Depending on how you look at it, financing is either one big advantage of the buy-in approach or it reveals the flaw in their design. These plans still charge people premiums, which would be calculated to cover the costs of covering people who buy the new public option plan as well as any administrative costs.
So there isn’t necessarily a need for a big new revenue source; the premiums are the revenue source. None of the Medicare buy-in plans included major new taxes or anything like you would see to pay for the Medicare-for-all single-payer plans. All three of them do set aside some money for startup costs, but it’s a marginal amount in the context of the federal budget. And the Medicaid buy-in plan does bump up certain doctor payment rates, which the legislators say would come from general revenue.
The differences are so minor, they aren’t worth going through in detail. But it’s important to remember the trade-off: Medicare and Medicaid buy-ins don’t require a lot of new money because people will be asked to pay premiums — but that also means people will be asked to pay premiums, something the more ambitious versions of Medicare-for-all try to eliminate.
Think tank plans
Medicare Extra for All (Center for American Progress): Like the Sanders plan, Medicare Extra for All offers a menu of possible financing options that target the wealthy. Beyond that, Medicare Extra for All suggests one unique funding source: taxes on cigarettes and sugary beverages, as a way to raise revenue and improve public health outcomes.
Healthy America (Urban Institute): Because Healthy America combines Obamacare and most of Medicaid, the proposal is largely funded by repurposing the federal dollars that currently go to those programs. That would cover the bulk of the costs, but Urban does anticipate the need for new federal funding.
Like many of its peers, Urban isn’t yet set on a specific revenue stream, but it has floated a 1 percent increase on the Medicare payroll tax, split evenly between employers and employees. That would bring in about $820 billion over 10 years, which Urban thinks would be enough to cover most of the new costs needed to fund Healthy America.
Trump ran as “tough on crime.” But now he’s set to sign major criminal justice reform.
The Senate on Tuesday passed a criminal justice reform bill in an 87-12 vote, overwhelmingly approving the biggest changes to the federal criminal justice system in decades.
The bill, known as the First Step Act, will take modest steps to alter the federal criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level. It would affect only the federal system — which, with about 181,000 imprisoned people, holds a small but significant fraction of the US jail and prison population of 2.1 million.
Essentially, the bill will allow thousands of people to earn an earlier release from prison and could cut many more prison sentences in the future.
The bill has come a long way since it was introduced earlier this year, when a version of it passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Back then, the bill made no effort to cut the length of prison sentences on the front end, although it did take some steps to encourage rehabilitation programs in prison that inmates could use, in effect, to reduce how long they’re in prison. But Senate Democrats and other reformers took issue with the bill’s limited scope and managed to add changes that will ease prison sentences, at least mildly.
If the bill gets another approval from the House (to confirm the changes), it will head to Trump’s desk. Even though Trump ran on a “tough on crime” platform in which he promised to support harsh prison sentences, the president has come to support the legislation — in large part thanks to the backing of key advisers, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
And the bill has support from a wide array of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Koch brothers–backed Right on Crime, and other organizations on both the left and right.
That doesn’t mean the bill skated by without opposition. Some Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, took issue with the mild reforms in the First Step Act, even as Republican senators like Chuck Grassley (IA) and Lindsey Graham (SC) came on board.
That opposition at times appeared to endanger the bill, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced skepticism of causing an intraparty fight over the legislation. But the bill ultimately passed the Senate with some changes.
If it gets through the House and Trump, the First Step Act will become the first significant criminal justice reform law in years.
The bill will make retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level. This could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates, according to the Marshall Project.
The bill would take several steps to ease mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. It would expand the “safety valve” that judges can use to avoid handing down mandatory minimum sentences. It would ease a “three strikes” rule so people with three or more convictions, including for drug offenses, automatically get 25 years instead of life, among other changes. It would restrict the current practice of stacking gun charges against drug offenders to add possibly decades to prison sentences. All of these changes would lead to shorter prison sentences in the future.
The bill would increase “good time credits” that inmates can earn. Inmates who avoid a disciplinary record can currently get credits of up to 47 days per year incarcerated. The bill increases the cap to 54, allowing well-behaved inmates to cut their prison sentences by an additional week for each year they’re incarcerated. The change applies retroactively, which could allow some prisoners — as many as 4,000, according to supporters — to qualify for release the day that the bill goes into effect.
The bill would allow inmates to get “earned time credits” by participating in more vocational and rehabilitative programs. Those credits would allow them to be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. Not only could this mitigate prison overcrowding, but the hope is that the education programs will reduce the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime once released and, as a result, reduce both crime and incarceration in the long term. (There’s research showing that education programs do reduce recidivism.)
Not every inmate would benefit from the changes. The system would use an algorithm to initially determine who can cash in earned time credits, with inmates deemed higher risk excluded from cashing in, although not from earning the credits (which they could then cash in if their risk level is reduced).
But algorithms can perpetuate racial and class disparities that are already deeply embedded in the criminal justice system. For instance, an algorithm that excludes someone from earning credits due to previous criminal history may overlook that black and poor people are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes even when they’re not more likely to actually commit those crimes. So although the bill would put checks on the algorithm, it’s turned into a controversial portion of the bill even among criminal justice reformers.
The bill would also exclude certain inmates from earning credits, such as undocumented immigrants and people who are convicted of high-level offenses.
And it would make other changes aimed at improving conditions in prisons, including banning the shackling of women during childbirth and requiring that inmates are placed closer to their families.
Even as the bill looked more and more likely to pass, it faced stiff opposition from far-right Republicans, led primarily by Sen. Cotton.
In tweets and articles about the legislation, Cotton said that he had several concerns about the bill, arguing that it would allow violent and high-level drug offenders out of prison early and make it far too easy to earn an early release from prison.
The bill’s supporters argued that Cotton either misunderstood the bill or was misleading the public about it.
For example, Cotton argued that “productive activities” are defined so vaguely in the bill that federal inmates could earn early release by watching TV or doing other leisurely activities. But Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), one of the legislation’s supporters, countered that the early release programs “are designed by federal prison wardens, not prisoners. Federal prison wardens simply do not award time credits for watching TV. Furthermore, the bill mandates data analysis on the effectiveness of each recidivism-reduction program. If the program is not proven effective, wardens will not award time for participating in it.”
Cotton also claimed that some high-level offenders would be eligible for early release under the bill, because it didn’t exclude, for example, someone convicted of threatening to assault, kidnap, or murder a judge from earning time credits. But Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director and co-founder of the criminal justice reform group #Cut50, argued that this misunderstood how the law is applied in reality: Someone convicted of threatening to kidnap a judge would also be convicted on kidnapping charges more generally — and those general charges would lead to exclusion under the First Step Act.
Cotton “should know better than a lot of the arguments he’s putting out there,” Sloan told me.
Still, the opposition from some Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), was enough to make McConnell skeptical of allowing a vote on the First Step Act. So when those senators demanded minor tweaks to the bill, supporters complied — adding, among other changes, some restrictions to judges’ use of the “safety valve” and several more exclusions to earned time credits, including for some drug and violent offenders. The tweaks were enough to get the bill through the finish line.
Cotton ultimately voted against the legislation, despite the changes.
This goes against the empirical evidence on the topic, which has consistently found that more incarceration and longer prison sentences do little to combat crime. A 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration — and its abilities to incapacitate or deter criminals — explained about 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, though other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s.
Another huge review of the research, released last year by David Roodman of the Open Philanthropy Project, found that releasing people from prison earlier doesn’t lead to more crime, and that holding people in prison longer may actually increase crime.
That conclusion matches what other researchers have found in this area. As the National Institute of Justice concluded in 2016, “Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.”
The First Step Act starts to chip away at this problem at the federal level, although its overall impact is unlikely to be very large.
Even if the bill passes, its effect on mass incarceration will be relatively small
Even the First Step Act’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that it will have a fairly small impact on the size of the federal prison system and particularly the national landscape. The bill may let thousands of federal inmates out early, but, as Stanford drug policy expert Keith Humphreys noted in the Washington Post, more than 1,700 people are released from prison every day already — so the bill in one sense only equates to adding a few more days of typical releases to the year.
One major reason for the bill’s limited scope: It deals only with the federal system, which is a fairly small part of the overall criminal justice system in America.
Consider the numbers: According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 87 percent of US prison inmates are held in state facilities (and most state inmates are in for violent, not drug, crimes). That doesn’t even account for local jails, where hundreds of thousands of people are held on a typical day in America. Just look at this chart from the Prison Policy Initiative, which shows both local jails and state prisons far outpacing the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons:
One way to think about this is what would happen if President Donald Trump used his pardon powers to their maximum potential — meaning he pardoned every single person in federal prison right now. That would push down America’s overall incarcerated population from about 2.1 million to about 1.9 million.
That would be a hefty reduction. But it also wouldn’t undo mass incarceration, as the US would still lead all but one country in incarceration: With an incarceration rate of around 593 per 100,000 people, only the small nation of El Salvador would come out ahead — and America would still dwarf the incarceration rates of other developed nations like Canada (114 per 100,000), Germany (75 per 100,000), and Japan (41 per 100,000).
While the federal government can incentivize states to adopt specific criminal justice policies, studies show that previous efforts, such as the 1994 federal crime law, had little to no impact. By and large, it seems local municipalities and states will only embrace federal incentives on criminal justice issues if they actually want to adopt the policies being encouraged.
Criminal justice reform, then, is going to fall largely to municipalities and states, and a bill that might slightly cut incarceration on the federal level isn’t going to have a very big effect. (To this end, many cities and states are actually way ahead of the federal government when it comes to criminal justice reform, with many passing the kinds of sentencing reforms that the federal system has struggled to enact.)
That’s not to downplay the work of criminal justice reformers who are trying to reduce the size and burden of what amounts to a fairly large prison system at the federal level. But to understand the bill, it’s important to put its full impact on mass incarceration in the broader national context.
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A Green Beret’s murder charges; protests in Hungary.
Plus: If you love Vox videos, we’re trying something brand new over on our YouTube channel. Check it out.
Trump tweets and the rule of law, part 700 or so
President Donald Trump, apparently fueled by a Fox News segment, tweeted Sunday morning that he “will be reviewing” the murder case against a US Green Beret who was charged last week with murder for killing a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan. [NYT / Helene Cooper, Michael Tackett and Taimoor Shah]
Trump’s tweet was just the latest development in a saga that began in 2010, when Army Major Matthew Golsteyn shot and killed an Afghan man an informant told him had built bombs for the Taliban that killed American military personnel. Army documents say that Golsteyn told the CIA killed the man off base, buried him, then burned his remains; Golsteyn’s lawyers dispute this version of events. [NYT / Helene Cooper, Michael Tackett and Taimoor Shah]
Golsteyn admitted killing the man in a job interview with the CIA in 2011, leading to an Army investigation that reprimanded him but did not charge him with murder. [Army Times / Michelle Tan]
Golsteyn then talked about the killing again in a Fox News interview in 2016, saying that he feared the bombmaker would kill the tribal leader who had identified him. After the interview, the Army reopened the case and charged him on Thursday. [Task and Purpose / Jeff Schogol]
The next step is a hearing to determine whether Golsteyn’s case will go to trial — and all of that brings us to Trump’s tweet, which some legal experts say could constitute “unlawful command influence” because the commander in chief is tweeting about an ongoing issue of military justice. [Law and Crime / Alberto Luperon]
For the last several days, Hungarians have been out in the streets protesting the regime of president Viktor Orban. Sunday’s protest, the largest to date, drew 10,000 people. [Vox / Zack Beauchamp]
The ostensible trigger for the protests is a new labor law passed by Orban’s Fidesz party, which would allow employers to demand up to 400 hours of overtime a year from their employees — and defer payment for up to three years. (The law is an attempt to solve the country’s labor shortage without allowing in more immigrants, which would be anathema to the nativist Orban regime.) [NPR / Joanna Kakissis]
But the protests have quickly become a catchall for those dissatisfied with Orban’s gutting of the independent judiciary, his shuttering of Central European University (which he claimed was involved in a George Soros plot), and his other moves to stifle democracy. [NYT / Patrick Kingsley]
(Indeed, the closure of CEU inspired a forerunner to the current protests, which makes sense because if you don’t want protests it’s generally a bad idea to give university students nothing to do.) [Deutsche Welle]
Some experts have seen Hungary as a prototype for “democratic backsliding”; Vox’s Zack Beauchamp calls it “soft fascism.” But either way, it depends on people continuing to treat the government as legitimate, and that’s not what’s happening right now. [Vox / Zack Beauchamp]
Indeed, the state-run media — which has aggressively backed Orban — has itself become a target of protesters. An opposition member of parliament attempted to get into a studio and read a list of demands. He was forcibly removed; others showed up to replace him. [BBC]
It is, amazingly, legal for senators to trade individual stocks, creating a wide-open field for insider trading. Two senators want to change that.[The Intercept / David Dayen]
The world’s greatest conspiracy theory: the reason that Mattress Firm has so many store locations everywhere is that it’s a giant money laundering scheme. (Note to Mattress Firm’s lawyers: we are not saying you are a giant money laundering scheme. Please don’t sue us.) [WBUR / Meghan B. Kelly]
To their Facebook friends, Jennifer and Sarah Hart seemed like a dream couple, with six beautiful kids. Then Jen drove her, Jen, and half their kids off a cliff, killing them all. [Glamour / Lauren Smiley]
This is the story of a butterfly lover who voted for Trump and then realized the border wall would threaten his beloved butterflies. [Washington Post / Luciano Guerra]
Comedy writer Megan Amram made a short-form series called An Emmy for Megan so she could get an Emmy. Now the Emmy people are changing the Emmy rules so Emmy-seekers like Megan can’t get Emmys anymore. [Uproxx / Ryan Nagelhout]
“‘Where were you when we were getting high?’ is such a beautiful lyrical gripe, where the irresponsible act is not showing up on time for the drugs.”[Emily Nussbaum]
Watch this: How to make more Vox videos happen
If you’ve followed Vox videos for years, or even if you’re a brand-new fan, we have something exciting for you: today, we’re launching a members-only community called the Vox Video Lab. It’s the No. 1 way to help us dream big, and give you more of the beautiful videos you love. You’ll also get access to behind the scenes videos, outtakes, Q&As with your favorite creators, and more. Learn all about it here. [YouTube]
How — and where — to spot comet Wirtanen as it comes within 7.1 million miles of the Earth.
This Sunday, December 16, a comet called 46P/Wirtanen is going to come within 7.1 million miles of the Earth (about 30 times the distance of the Earth to the moon). While that may sound extremely far away, it’s actually close enough for us to potentially see its green-hued tail with the naked eye.
According to NASA, Wirtanen’s flyby will be one of the top 10 closest flybys of a comet to the Earth in 70 years. The University of Maryland’s astronomy department — which is leading a scientific observation campaign of the comet — assures us there’s “no chance of the comet hitting Earth.” So look on in amazement, not horror.
It’s hard to predict the exact brightness, and thus visibility, of a comet. Comets are balls of ice and rock that form tails of debris as they approach the sun. (The sun melts some material off the comet.) But the quantity of material in the comet’s tail is not stable.
Sometimes a comet will have more material in its tail to reflect sunlight and appear brightly in our night sky. Sometimes it won’t. It can also be hard to predict the spread of a comet’s tail. The more spread out the tail, the more diffuse the comet becomes.
Regardless, “even if it does not reach naked eye brightness, it will still be a great object to view with binoculars or a small telescope,” the University of Maryland explains. Wirtanen, named after its discoverer, the astronomer Carl A. Wirtanen, is a “hyperactive” comet, meaning it produces more water in its tail than most comets its size. That makes it more likely to be bright. In any case, try to find the darkest spot you can with this dark sky finder app.
The path of comet 46P/Wirtanen
On the night of December 16, you can look for Wirtanen near the constellation Taurus (the bull) high up in the Southeastern sky. I recommend downloading a smartphone astronomy app like Sky Guide to know exactly where to look in your area. These apps use your phone’s GPS to show you where objects are in the night sky.
And here’s how it will move across the sky over the next several nights.
The comet passes by Earth every 5.4 years. But this weekend might be the best time to view it in a lifetime. “This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries,” Paul Chodas, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, said in a press statement.
Scientists are excited to observe the comet as it approaches. It’s a comet that regularly comes close enough to the Earth that one day we could send a spacecraft to rendezvous with it. (It was actually the original target of the Rosetta mission launch by the European Space Agency. Rosetta ended up orbiting the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.)
Comets are believed to be leftover material from the formation of our solar system. Understanding them better helps us better understand how star systems form.
And if you miss the comet on Sunday, don’t fear. It’s should also be visible for a few more nights.
Negotiators at COP24 in Katowice have finally reached an agreement, but key points on carbon markets are still being debated.
UPDATE, December 15: International climate change negotiators announced late Saturday that they have reached an agreement at COP24 in Poland. The text charts a path forward for countries to set tougher targets for cutting greenhouse gases under the Paris climate agreement, as well as stronger transparency rules for countries in disclosing their emissions. However, nations still couldn’t reach an accord on how to use markets to limit carbon dioxide. Those discussions will continue next year. Read on for the context around these negotiations and why environmental groups, governments, and private companies were so concerned about the outcome of this conference.
An agreement between 200 nations at a major international climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, is taking longer than expected. The two-week meeting was supposed to wrap Friday. But as of Saturday, a full compilation of the Paris Agreement rulebook had been released, but a final deal still hadn’t been announced as critical details remained up for debate.
The goal of the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to hammer out critical the details of the Paris climate agreement. Under the 2015 accord, countries set out to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100 at most, with a preferred target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
However, the original pledged cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would not put the world anywhere near meeting these targets.
So the agreement included provisions for countries to meet regularly and ramp up their ambitions, all of which are voluntary. COP24 is the first time since Paris that countries are actually talking with each other about going beyond their initial commitments. That’s why this meeting is so important. That’s also why scientists and activists are pushing for even more ambitious commitments to reduce emissions in the final days of the negotiations.
“If the Paris agreement is actually going to live up to that model of voluntary bottom-up commitments, … ongoing ratcheting down of those commitments, then it has to happen at this first moment,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund, by phone from Katowice. “And if it doesn’t happen at this first moment, then it will call into question whether this ratcheting will actually work.”
The outcome of the negotiations became increasingly uncertain after President Trump in 2017 announced he would withdraw the United States from the accord.
For an agreement that hinges so much on cooperation and good faith, the worry was that without the US, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the deal would fall apart, that other countries would weaken their ambitions or sign an agreement so full of loopholes as to be useless.
For delegates, the goal is to nail down critical details, like how to verify that countries are actually progressing in cutting greenhouse gases, creating market mechanisms to control emissions, and coming up with ways to help developing countries finance a transition to cleaner energy sources.
While we await word from #COP24, it’s worth being clear on the implications if Art 6 is left out of the decision (as looks likely). The bottom line is that countries can move ahead with international transfers even without guidance under Art 6.2 (1/4).
It turns out countries are making some progress in tracking their emissions, but are still struggling with many of the financial issues associated with mitigating climate change. It’s yet another example of the tension between the threat of rising average temperatures and the fears of economic strain that hinder ambition in cutting greenhouse gases.
Fighting climate change is only getting harder
The literal and metaphorical backdrops of the COP24 negotiations highlight the enormousness of the challenge. Katowice is in the heart of Poland’s coal country and the conference is sponsored in part by Polish coal companies. The conference venue is literally festooned with coal.
At the global #ClimateChange convention our host, Poland, greets us with a shrine of ACTUAL coal
This year the #UNFCCC event is sponsored by coal companies in a country that generates 80% of electricity from coal
The country as a whole gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from coal, a major greenhouse gas emitter. During the negotiations, Poland’s environment minister, Marcin Korolec, who is also serving as the president of COP24, was fired from this government post (He is slated to be replaced by Maciej Grabowski, a former deputy finance minister in charge of taxing shale gas).
That’s a huge problem given the October report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The special report, commissioned by the UNFCCC, focused on what it would take to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. The Paris climate agreement set out to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, with an additional target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The IPCC report found that it would require an unprecedented international effort, demanding technologies that are still in their infancy, and that the world may have as little as 12 years to act. That would likely require current cutting global emissions in half by 2030.
Though the United States has managed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while growing its economy, largely by switching from coal to natural gas, other countries have yet to satiate their appetites for dirty energy. China, for examples, emits more greenhouse gases than the United States and Europe combined, and its emissions are still growing.
Countries that need to slowdown: * China, up 4.7% [2.0–7.4%] * India, up 6.3% [4.3–8.3%] * Others (largely developing), up 1.8% [0.5–3.0%]
The world as a whole needs to sharply bend the emissions curve as fast as possible if the planet is to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius. And seven big countries, including the US, are well behind hitting the pledges they made in Paris, according to the UN Environment Program’s most recent annual “emissions gap” report.
So the agreement taking shape in Poland seems to be a mixed bag. “Some of the issues like transparency rules are going in the right direction, but market mechanism is a pretty big mess,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, speaking from Poland.
The first step in limiting greenhouse gases is to keep track of them and provisions on measuring and verifying carbon dioxide emissions inventories for different countries looks to be strong.
But countries are still struggling with the best way to deal with climate change around the world, whether it means deploying clean energy in their own countries, financing climate change adaptation in vulnerable regions, or pooling money to help more fossil fuel-dependent countries sever their ties to carbon-intensive energy. Some delegates, particularly those from island nations threatened by sea level rise, also want more stringent targets for greenhouse gases.
The US government is a major obstacle in climate negotiations, but not the only one
As Vox’s David Roberts has explained, the United States is undermining the success of the Paris agreement. It’s not just that Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the accord. The Trump administration has gone as far as to gleefully taunt delegates at COP24 with a panel promoting the use of more coal.
Unlike previous proposed international climate agreements, there’s no penalty or enforcement mechanism for breaching greenhouse gas targets. And the targets, remember, are set by countries for themselves.
Instead, the agreement hinges on peer pressure, which in turn requires countries to be open and transparent about their progress in fighting climate change.
So when the world’s second-largest carbon dioxide emitter decides not to play ball, it drastically weakens how much other countries can be shamed or prodded into limiting their emissions.
That in turn makes it more difficult to secure investments in clean energy, since the regulatory environment has become more volatile.
The US’s actions have given some cover to other countries who are less than enthralled with the prospect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. At COP24, this manifested in a fight over how to acknowledge the findings of the recent IPCC special report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. A draft of the final text initially said that negotiators “welcome” the findings from more than 300 researchers.
But the US, joined by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, objected to the language and want the final text to “note” the IPCC report rather than “welcome” it.
“The United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report,” the US State Department said in a statement to the Associated Press. “As we have made clear in the IPCC and other bodies, the United States has not endorsed the findings of the report.”
More recent drafts of the agreement now say that countries “appreciate” the IPCC report.
The federal government isn’t the only representative of the United States in Poland
Because of the rules of the Paris accord, the US can’t formally withdraw until after the 2020 election. But a consortium of US companies, investors, tribes, universities, and legislators have pledged to continue cutting carbon dioxide emissions in line with their commitments under the Paris accord.
Members of the We Are Still In coalition, which represents about half of the US population, are meeting with other negotiators as they highlight their own initiatives in fighting climate change to help encourage other countries to pursue their own. California, for example, has set a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2045, deploying aggressive policies to encourage electric cars, rooftop solar power, and batteries on the power grid to store variable renewable energy.
The hope is to bypass the Trump administration’s retrenchment on climate change action. However, activists are still not content with the pace of progress. Students in Poland staged a strike at the COP24 venue on Friday, demanding that countries set tougher emissions goals for themselves.
Observers say that whatever agreement that’s forged in Poland is only a first step. After representatives take the deal back to their home countries, their governments will still have to implement the rules and report back next year at the United Nations general assembly next September. That gathering will highlight just how far apart words and actions are on climate change.
“That will be the real acid test of ambition,” Meyer said.