Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Clinton-Bush Budget Cycle

During the “Progressives and the National Debt” special presentation of the Center for American Progress and The Center on Budget Policy Priorities I thought the largest piece of the puzzle missing from the conversation was the political aspect.

In line with the Paul Krugman’s comments it’s not terribly difficult to find a policy mix which will slowly move America towards a sustainable budget. The elephant in the room is that nobody really knows how to create and particularly sustain the political conditions to make those changes. In fact the real issue seems to be the issue of sustainability. Under the right circumstances it’s proven possible to get politicians of both parties to agree to not make the debt worse or make other agreements to move us in the right direction. But all that does is set up the next set of politicians to raid the budget to achieve their agenda (see the last 8 years).

There were a couple of moments where speakers alluded to this type of dynamic, but without digging into the details or offer much in the way of solutions. So is there is a solution or are we doomed?

The answer is there isn’t a ‘policy’ solution, but I think there is a real life strategy that can be pursued. To be exact there is a set of strategies you need to pursue. A lot of the positive change can come in the way the type of policy changes being proposed by panelists; closing tax loopholes, bringing traditional budget scrutiny to tax expenditures, reforming medicare and social security and improving the productivity of the health care system would all improve the long term budget outlook. Those type of changes would be necessary for long term budget reform, but likely insufficient (again if the last 8 years were any indication).

The additional steps would need to legal and political barriers to budget busting policies. The type of legal barriers to bad policy could come in strengthening the rules we have now. Budget reconciliation, the PayGo rules, and the entitlement rules generally could all be fiddled with to make it harder to increase the deficit.

None of these rule changes would mean much without greater political will, but political will is not static thing. It can be created and strengthened. Right now there really isn’t any group I know of doing anything other then issuing critical reports when Congress increases the deficit. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Budget reform advocates are pretty clearly in the thinktank universe, so questions regarding actually creating even small incentives for good policy are pretty left unanswered. Hopeful advocacy groups will start seeing the links between their issues and the budget and create an new political dynamic where short term and irresponsible budget policies pose a greater political threat.



The Limits of Presidential Popularity

I attended today’s “Progressives and the National Debt” special presentation of the Center for American Progress and The Center on Budget Policy Priorities. Very good speakers and strong discussion, but I wanted to comment on one particular ill considered line of argument made by Charlie Cook.

Cook began his comments by going over President Obama’s approval rating over the course of this year and proceeded to suggest that positive ratings among moderates gave Presidents their “mojo” in terms of enacting his agenda. Obama before Memorial Day=lots of Mojo, Obama after Labor Day= less Mojo.

This is just a simplistic way to look at things. All else being equal popularity among moderates would be important to passing your agenda, but it’s really not that hard to see there are other factors playing a much bigger role. Obama was broadly popular when he pushed through the stimulus and it didn’t buy him hardly any GOP votes, nor did it keep Senate moderates from wanting to distance themselves from Obama by pursuing cuts to the size of the stimulus and other changes. Similarly, I doubt any Senator would be especially keen to swing their vote in favor of Health Care reform because a national poll said Obama was more popular.

What’s popular today might not be popular tomorrow and additionally what’s popular nationally might not be popular in their State or District. Anybody seriously thinking about getting re-elected thinks about this stuff, but it’s not reflected in the ‘CNN worldview’ where every little hiccup in the National mood is considered a momentous event worthy of hours of discussion.

Not to suggest polling isn’t important, but everybody knows you’re trying predict tomorrow’s poll numbers not yesterday’s. If some politicians think bucking the trend today is the right strategy to help them in their next election they’ll do it and all the media contrived political capital in world won’t matter.


A Bumpy Road to Transit Reauthorization

Well, Wednesday is the poorly-timed deadline. SAFETEA-LU expires at the end of September. So in case you thought Congress had enough on its hands, they have to figure out what to do about this ticking time bomb that could halt construction projects nationwide if handled poorly. Naturally, it looks like they will be taking the path of least resistance:

House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and most members on his side of the Capitol contend that a three-month extension is needed to spur an agreement on a long-term infrastructure bill before year’s end.

But given Senate Democrats’ preference for an 18-month delay, the two chambers soon could add a one-month extension of existing transport law to the spending bill that Congress must pass by next week to keep the government funded.

Such a move would effectively postpone until October 30 the deadline for the House and Senate to reach an agreement. Oberstar, speaking on the House floor yesterday, was unmoved by the Senate and White House’s call for a long delay in reforming transportation spending.

Good for Oberstar, digging in his heels. He is fighting an uphill battle against the overwhelming power of inertia, but as a general rule on the Hill, those who yell the loudest tend to get their way sooner or later. And he is clearly yelling the loudest right now.

And like clockwork, House Republican leadership came out in full-throated opposition to the extension, blithely claiming Oberstar is just trying to buy time to build consensus on a gas tax increase. Nevertheless, the three-month extension passed the House by a whopping 335-85 margin. It looks to be DOA in the Senate, but it at least forms a decent starting point in the negotiation process. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess.

The financing piece seems to be the major stumbling block at the moment. Nobody really wants to raise the gas tax, but it is currently being seen in the conventional wisdom as the only viable option in the short term. Granted, the gas tax does solve a lot of problems: easy to administer, discourages use of inefficient vehicles, relatively stable throughout the year, and can be thought of as a user fee. Problem is, as people drive less and drive more efficient cars, they inherently consume less gas. This is clearly a desirable goal, but it also means highways don’t get repaved and rail lines don’t get built unless we find another way to pay for them.

Carrots & Sticks strongly supports consideration of alternative financing mechanisms such as Rep. DeFazio’s tax on oil speculation. We are continuing to get the word out about this idea around the Hill, and I am consulting with a handful of transportation finance experts to examine other possibilities. A visiting professor of mine at George Washington University, Swiss Transport Economist Franziska Borer Blindenbacher, has graciously agreed to share her thoughts with policymakers and relay the European experience in developing innovative transit funding sources.

In other news, the Boxer draft of the climate bill will be released on Wednesday, and we are very concerned it will follow the House bill’s lead in drastically shortchanging clean transportation as a use of cap-and-trade allocations. We will be pushing for adoption of the Carper-Specter CLEAN TEA proposal, a measure that would set aside 10% of carbon revenues to fund transportation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we have recently added this vital provision to our list of transportation objectives.


Climate Legislation End Game

Many reliably informed people I’ve talked with thinks a Cap and Trade bill has virtually no chance of passing the Senate. There are just way more likely Dem no votes then GOP yes votes. And yet both the Senate Finance and Environment and Public Works Committees are full steam ahead in working on climate legislation. Why?

Why is Max Baucus so interested in asserting authority over carbon allocation if no legislation limiting carbons emissions can pass? Why did the Environment and Public Works Committee ever want to fast track climate legislation if it’s DOA on the floor of the Senate?

Here’s are a couple ideas on the end game, but if you’ve got a better one let me hear it.

It’s a long term play.
Both the EPW and Finance Committee are looking to protect and expand their turf in the long term, so they’re rushing to work on and lay claim to a bill, which has close to zero chance to pass this term. Eventually we’ll have to confront this issue and when we do they want authority.

Most of the bill will become law
Just not Cap and Trade. The Senate shown a lot of interest in energy policy and with a few compromises regarding nuclear power and carbon capture subsidies you could see a lot of votes for a clean energy bill sans Cap and Trade. There’s also potential for legislation helping the EPA rationally regulate Carbon Emissions.

It’s too early to say
Sure it’s looking pretty bleak for strong or even weak climate action, but you just can’t predict the future. Maybe the prospect of EPA regulation of carbon emissions will change minds. Maybe if you re-frame the issue it’ll get a second look from some Senators.

I’m not saying climate activists should give up on pushing for Cap and Trade or other meaningful efforts to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, Carrots and Sticks will be continuing are direct advocacy efforts on the climate front this month. If you’re interested in joining us, let us know.


Shifting Goalposts Forever

Here is a piece of really solid analysis on the troop level increase proposed Fred and Kim Kagan, which I think speaks to a lot of broader issues in politics.

Spencer Ackerman:
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

The sun rose today and its gravitational force kept the planet twisting around it through the void, so naturally Fred and Kim Kagan, the neoconservative wing of counterinsurgency, have put out a call for between 40,000 and 45,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan in the next year …

It’s difficult to understand how the Kagans think there are 40,000 – 45,000 U.S. troops available for deployment — the Pentagon doesn’t think the Army can deploy a single additional combat brigade to Afghanistan in the next six months — and the report is silent on whether to increase the pace of withdrawal from Iraq (formerly a Kagan no-no); whether to decrease the time in between deployments, which the Army and the Secretary of Defense will resist after having to do it to sustain the 2007 Iraq troop surge; or whether to … I don’t know. They just want the politically treacherous 40,000-45,000 troop increase, and now the GOP will have a troop figure to say Afghanistan requires if Obama doesn’t provide such a ginormous increase. (emphasis added)

Andrew Sullivan adds:

What is the point of arguing for a strategy that simply cannot be done? My suspicion is that, like most neocon projects of the recent past, this is not an actual strategy for resolving the problem. It’s a domestic political move designed to set up Republican cries of “retreat!” and “surrender!” if the president decides that pulling an LBJ on Afghanistan isn’t a good idea. The way the McChrystal report was leaked also suggests a domestic political strategy of bouncing Obama into a deeper, longer war (on top of the eight years already invested).

On Afghanistan the Kagans got pretty much exactly what they wanted from the Obama Administration in the first 8 months, and despite the lack of available resources they still want more. You see this type of hyper-aggressive goal post shifting in many areas of domestic policy. When people started digging into the Obama claim that there is agreement on “80%” of Health Care Reform, it became apparent people just hadn’t gotten around to demanding revisions to the allegedly middle of the road proposals which make up the other 80%.

And when there is no agreed upon goal posts there is no 50 yard line either. The whole concept of moderation falls apart. Most advocates and politicians aren’t nearly so willing to ask for the impossible as the Kagans, but when the goal posts of starting shifting, the goal of moderation isn’t going to mean much to anyone that needs to craft a real world strategy.


Report from the Front: Health-Care Markup

I was in the Finance Committee Health Care Markup along with my partner in crime, Jeremy, so I thought I’d pass on a few noteworthy nuggets.

(UPDATE: Jeremy was also livetweeting the events. You can find him on Twitter @jkoul.)

First, the Republican talking points of the day. (I begin with these because all the Republicans repeated them in some form. I started to wish a conductor would appear so they could sing them in unison. It would have saved time.)

1) The White House and Democratic Leadership are rushing us—all of them except Max Baucus, who is a nice guy saddled with a pushy impatient reckless party. The American people are entitled to a meticulous process, not an artificial deadline. Obama should delay, step back, take a breath, back up, and turn around.

2) This bill expands the deficit, costs too much, and puts too great a tax burden on American families.

3) This bill expands government too much. It focuses on Washington, not on a) our families b) the states c)our individualistic American culture which won’t accept a bill of this nature

4) Americans have rejected this health care legislation: didn’t you see the town halls? (often reiterated)

5) Obama made a promise not to put in new taxes on anybody who makes under $250,000 and this bill does that. Obama made a promise that anybody who likes their insurance can keep it but this bill subtly and covertly taxes people for choosing plans other than the public plan (which is odd, since the bill doesn’t include a public plan. I think maybe they were confusing the Baucus bill with HR 3200). Obama intends to break his promises and is untrustworthy.

6) “government takeover” “federally-funded abortions” (repeat as necessary)

Now you’ve got the Republicans’ basic framework. I’m offering a prize to somebody who can turn it into a doo-wop song called “Reconciliation.”

Other interesting nuggets, of a political nature:

In Grassley’s introductory speech, he said the following:
“On August 6th, the five members of this committee and I met with the President. I told Obama that I had to have him say to me that he would be willing to admit publicly that there would be no government-run plan if there was going to be bipartisan support.”

So I guess now we know where Obama’s mid-August backtracking on the public option came from.

In Rockefeller’s introductory speech, he said he was confident they could pass a bill because “…there is a kind of new spirit. We had an incredible meeting last night on our side, a very good discussion.” Now, you might think that was bad news, and that Rockefeller had been brought into the fold by Baucus. But Rockefeller is still speaking out for the public option–more strongly than anyone other than Stabenow and Schumer. Therefore, when *he* says he’s confident, and that they had a really good meeting, I take that as good news.

One last telling incident:

There was a significant dust-up around 5 p.m. Snowe started it by asking the CBO head if he would have a score for the modified mark before they voted on it. This led into a discussion of how long it would take the CBO to score the modified mark. The poor CBO head, whose people had been given 500+ amendments to Baucus’ original bill 48 hours before, said that for a preliminary scoring, like that which the CBO had done for the original Baucus bill, it would take a few days, but that for a complete, final ranking of the modified bill, it would take two weeks. This answer obviously shocked Baucus, and played right into the Republicans’ talking point of “we need to delay; the White House is too impatient; we need to do this methodically.” Baucus said “It can’t be that different than what you did for the preliminary analysis, can it?” at which point I actually began to feel sorry for him, because I realized that Baucus didn’t want delay–in fact, he *emphatically* did not want delay. I was sorry for him at that point because I realized that he had not just been delaying the process all summer on purpose; he hadn’t been acting in bad faith; for all his faults, and ties to the insurance industry, he did have a desire to get a bill out of committee and believed he could get a bipartisan bill out. That, in short, he really had been played. Unbelievable as that is to me, given that he is a 30-year veteran of the Senate and a major power broker!

And Baucus seems to be growing a bit disillusioned with his Republican colleagues. Though he was obviously still wooing Snowe, making a staffer who was reading the amendments note that one of Snowe’s amendments had been accepted rather than skipping over it, he spoke little to Grassley. Most notable of all, he shook his head in disgust over Ensign’s wingnuttery, when the Nevada senator went on and on about how the fees the bill provides for—fines to punish the people who refuse to buy insurance—are actually “taxes” in disguise, and that the proof of that is that they are collected by the IRS. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t particularly like mandates myself, especially not in the Baucus bill, which has no public option. But fines for breaking the law *are not taxes*, and only the wingnuttish need to repeat Republican buzzwords over and over could make Ensign say they are. I thought Baucus’ willingness to show open disapproval of his Republican colleagues on television was significant.

As soon as Snowe asked the initial question about the CBO, my friend leaned over and whispered to me: “This is a wedge. She’s going to drive a wedge in,” meaning, of course, that Snowe was using the CBO’s plight as a tool to push the Republican theme of delay. Afterwards, we realized that, despite the timely nature of Snowe’s question, we really didn’t have proof that she had been acting in bad faith all along—it’s possible she simply didn’t want to vote on something that hadn’t been thoroughly analyzed by the CBO. However, I propose that it’s unlikely that she’d have no idea that the CBO would have difficulty scoring all those amendments, with all their possible interactions, on a bill of this magnitude, in a few days. Particularly since, in her introductory speech, she stated: “With more than 500 amendments, we are at the beginning not the end, and we will want the CBO to rank the final mark.” On the other hand, Max Baucus apparently didn’t know that the CBO could not do that—so anything is possible.

David Brooks is right, but not for the reason he thinks

Jimmy Carter’s well-spirited but perhaps poorly worded statement about racism being the primary motivator of teabaggers has touched off a fiery back-and-forth about the role of race relations in the health care debate. One of the latest salvos was supplied by NY Times columnist and egghead extraordinaire David Brooks, whose most recent column claims that “No, It’s Not About Race“:

Well, I don’t have a machine for peering into the souls of Obama’s critics, so I can’t measure how much racism is in there. But my impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts.

The populist tendency has always used the same sort of rhetoric: for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers.

And it has always had the same morality, which the historian Michael Kazin has called producerism. The idea is that free labor is the essence of Americanism. Hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways, are the moral backbone of the country. In this free, capitalist nation, people should be held responsible for their own output. Money should not be redistributed to those who do not work, and it should not be sucked off by condescending, manipulative elites.

Brooks is invoking the same notion of cultural “populism” that he always does – a faux populism that entirely disregards the importance of the economic elite in, well, the economy. I’m sure the old 1890’s Kansas-style populists would agree that the wealth they produce should not be sucked off by manipulative elites, the cocktail party class of which Brooks is an enthusiastic member. But they clearly wouldn’t agree with the modern laissez-faire implications of the statement “people should be held responsible for their own output”. Brooks’ depiction of  an “effete liberal” elite is fundamentally dishonest in that it looks entirely at cultural differences and completely ignores the fact that a government committed to laissez-faire economics is deliberately designed to redistribute wealth to the upper echelons and keep it there. The original populists knew this point all too well, and it was perhaps the primary motivator of their movement.

But that’s not my main point here. Brooks’ incessant invocation of the fake culture war is executed with one goal in mind: by playing the have-a-littles against the have-nots; it ensures the true haves will be left alone to control the means of production with little resistance of note. The true teabaggers, to generalize a bit, are those who are getting by but not thriving by any means. These are generally religious, culturally conservative and almost exclusively white folks. And they’ve been conditioned by people like Brooks to believe that the government’s primary purpose is to take their hard-earned winnings to line the pockets of both the urban elites and the lazy have-nots.

Yes, there is a lot of overlap between racists and teabaggers, because the efforts of the elite to manipulate class war between the underclasses is very familiar throughout American history, and used to take an overtly racist form in the days when that was acceptable. It’s a classic Machiavellian move to protect the powerful. So perhaps that’s where  Carter is coming from – he clearly remembers those days.

But at its core, the teabagger ethos really isn’t about race. We would be wise to remember that when engaging them.


On The 9-12 Protests

Watching varying reports on this weekend’s Conservative political rallies here in Washington, DC it seems increasing hard to justify the position that the rallies are “about” health care reform or even the more broad big government.

Not to say that the protesters secretly love big government or have a hidden fondness of of the public option, but rather they’re against Obama and Democratic party first and the particulars of what’s being proposed second. The most obvious example of this lack of opposition to the Republican party’s own support for not only the preservation of Medicare, but even it’s expansion a few years back.

But in general the protesters seem angry about all the stuff Republicans are always mad about. You can take a look at some of the pictures of protesters signs from Think Progress you’ll pretty see a wide variety of gripes that have nothing to do with health care. Some attack socialism as a vaguely defined concept, but certainly don’t reference anything Obama’s proposing.

The analogue to this is oft heard claim that anti-Iraq war protesters were all pacifists or opposed to any US military action. I always thought the Iraq war advocates exaggerated the extent of the the role of pacifists in the Iraq war protest movement, but they were certainly many pacifists involved in organizing the movement.

The great majority of the protesters would object to most anything Obama could be expected to propose as a member of the Democratic party. Which is fine as far as it goes, they could be right about all of it and they have every right to be heard. You could say the same of the pacifists.

Basic point is that depicting the current protester as a backlash to Obama is pretty clearly false. These are the same people that voted for McCain. We should still judge them based on the validity or total lack of validity present in their arguments.