Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pelosi calls for courage -- and demonstrates it

Prior to the Massachusetts election, I can't say I had a very distinct impression of Nancy Pelosi.  Since that bomb dropped, however, scattering Democrats' brains in all directions, I have admired her courage.  She has been the one voice who has consistently said from almost the moment of impact on: we will get it done. We will pass comprehensive health care reform. Most memorably there was this, on Jan. 28:
“You go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole-vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we’re going to get health care reform passed for the American people.”

Today on This Week, Pelosi addressed the hardest question of all for wavering Democrats:

VARGAS...What do you say to your members, when it does come to the House to vote on this, who are in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now?

PELOSI: Well first of all our members -- every one of them -- wants health care. I think everybody wants affordable health care for all Americans. They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill.

But the American people need it, why are we here? We're not here just to self perpetuate our service in Congress. We're here to do the job for the American people. To get them results that gives them not only health security, but economic security, because the health issue is an economic issue for -- for America's families.

Bipartisan health care reform: the sound of one hand clapping

As Paul Starr demonstrated back in September and as Obama has repeatedly emphasized recently, the Democrats' health care reform plan has a largely Republican pedigree. Plans depending in large part on subsidized private insurance were proposed by Republicans including Richard Nixon and Jacob Javits in the late 1940s, by Bob Dole and John Chafee in the early Clinton years, and again by the trio of Bob Dole, Howard Baker and Democrat Tom Daschl last year.

Ezra Klein recently documented six more contemporary Republican ideas incorporated into the current Democratic bills: an allowance for interstate compacts; the exchanges themselves, which pool risks for individuals and small businesses; a "waiver for state innovation" that allows states to structure their own plans; encouragement of state innovation on malpractice reform; the excise tax, which is a start on reigning in the employer tax deduction for health care; and the absence of a public option. 

All this conceptual bipartisanship has of course won the Democrats zero votes (okay, one House vote, to be retracted in the next round) from the present-day extremists who have taken over the Republican party. Yet the Democrats are still singing the same tune -- whether to win over the more conservative members of their own party,who largely replaced moderate Republicans, or to demonstrate their moderation to the country at large -- or both, as a centrist cast to the bill makes it easier for blue dog Democrats to justify a yea vote to their relatively conservative constituencies.

Here's Nancy Pelosi, contradicting herself in two sentences, defining the new bipartisanship in the second:
“Bipartisanship is a two-way street,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declares in an interview airing Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union.

“But let me say this,” Pelosi continues, “The bill can be bipartisan, even though the votes might not be bipartisan, because they [Republicans] have made their imprint on this.”

Friday, February 26, 2010 misleads on reconciliation

In a misguided attempt at evenhandedness, took a shot at Democrats' claims that there is nothing unusual or inappropriate about completing health care reform legislation by passing a series of fixes to the Senate reform bill via reconciliation.  Here's how Factcheck summarized one of a series of alleged "factual missteps" in the health reform summit:
Reid said “since 1981 reconciliation has been used 21 times. Most of it has been used by Republicans.” That’s true, but scholars say using it to pass health care legislation would be the most ambitious use to date of this filibuster-avoiding maneuver.
The analysis section references an article by Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds of Brookings that, according to Factcheck, finds "that passing health care legislation in this fashion would be the 'most ambitious' use of reconciliation to date."

But what does in this fashion mean?  The Brookings article was published on April 20, 2009.* The authors were weighing the possibility of passing the entire reform package through reconciliation. (They also concluded that "it is perfectly reasonable for Democrats to use the process for health care reform that both parties have used regularly for other major initiatives," but never mind.)

Passing a full-spectrum reform package through reconciliation is not on the table right now. The Democrats are trying to muster the will to have the House pass the Senate bill, which already passed the Senate with a 60-vote supermajority, and pass some funding-related adjustments through reconciliation.  And as Henry Aaron, also of Brookings, has written (and Jonathan Cohn highlighted), such budget-related adjustments are precisely what the reconciliation process was designed to address:
But in fact Congress created reconciliation procedures to deal with precisely this sort of situation -- its failure to implement provisions of the previous budget resolution. The 2009 budget resolution instructed both houses of Congress to enact health care reform. The House and the Senate have passed similar but not identical bills. Since both houses have acted but some work remains to be done to align the two bills, using reconciliation to implement the instructions in the budget resolution follows established congressional procedure.

So never mind that the Republicans passed two massive, budget-busting tax cuts and a massive, budget-busting deficit-funded Medicare prescription drug benefit through reconciliation, or that the authors of the study Factcheck cited concluded that passing the entirety of health care reform through reconciliation would be a better alternative than no health care reform at all. The contemplated use of reconciliation is limited, targeted, and focused on budgeting as reconciliation is supposed to be.

* Brookings added a headnote to this piece after the summit but sloppily neglected to mention that Democrats are not now contemplating passing a complete health reform package through reconciliation.  But Brookings' sloppiness does not excuse Factcheck's.

UPDATE: In the mailbag, Thomas Mann of Brookings validates this criticism.

Related posts:
Reconciliation explanation fail, cont.
Chait, is the gate 'wide open'?
The earth beneath their feet: Obama recasts health care reform
Aghanistan redux: Obama's HCR surge
Obama picks "none of the above" again
A gallon of water at bedtime for bedwetters: Obama's HCR prescription
How Obama will -- and won't -- lead on health care

David Brooks "Dull as Expected" on health care reform

The headline to David Brooks' column proclaims cheerfully that the health care summit was "not as dull as expected!"  But David Brooks here is dim as expected -- as dim as ever on health care.

His signature charge, here and elsewhere, is that the Democrats are not serious about cost control because supporters of the excise tax on expensive policies have allowed that tax to be weakened:
Fifth, you got to see at least one area of bipartisan agreement. Neither side was willing to be specific about how to cut costs and raise revenue. The Republicans continued to demagogue efforts to restrain Medicare spending. The Democrats (and the Republicans) conveniently neglected to mention the fact that they had just gutted the long-term revenue source for their entire package, the excise tax on high-cost insurance plans. That tax was diluted and postponed until 2018. There is no way that members of a Congress eight years from now are going to accede to a $1 trillion tax increase to pay for a measure that the 2010 Congress wasn’t brave enough to pay for itself.

First, it is just plain slander to assert that the Democrats are unwilling to be specific about how to raise revenue.  The House bill has no excise tax, but it is deficit neutral -- it raises money from other taxes, such as a surtax on high earners, while the Obama plan published in advance of the summit adds a new Medicare surtax on capital gains for high earners.  Second, as Atul Gawande has documented in exhaustive detail and as a group of top health care economists led by Dr. Alan Garber has affirmed, the bill deploys just about every means of cost control that health care experts deem to have potential  -- coordinated care teams, incentives for results and penalties for not meeting standards on measures such as hospital readmissions, a MedPAC commission with real authority -- and yes, the excise tax, albeit delayed.

Third, it is always suspect to speak of "courage" when dealing with collective bodies.   The excise tax has not been weakened because of a lack of "courage." Indeed, Obama has gone to the mat for it as he never did for the public option -- as Ezra Klein predicted he would long ago. Unions and their closest allies in the House have had the 'courage' to risk the entire bill to weaken this tax.  Cost control hawks have had the "courage" not to let it go.  Any further "courage" on their part would doom the bill to failure.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

HCR Summit

Live Twitter responses here.  At around noon Obama took control of the conversation, spotlighting Republican resistance to minimum coverage standards and making it clear that they're hawking illusory insurance (through association plans and selling across state lines without any baseline coverage mandates) that leaves people radically undercovered.

Republicans don't want "Washington" to "define health care benefits" (Cantor,  12:40) - they want to leave us to the tender mercy of insurance companies.

Obama 12:45: "we could make food cheaper if we eliminated meat inspections." Same with drugs. "We make some decisions to protect consumers in every aspect of our lives and we have bipartisan support for doing it. We don't want a situation in which people think they're getting one thing and they're guys believe in some regulations."  He is getting the clips he needs just as in the House Republican retreat.

Earlier, he suggested that members of Congress would not be very happy with the kinds of high-deductible and lightly regulated plans Republicans want to promote.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We all fail if health care reform fails

Reading first Jonathan's Cohn's account of the uphill struggle to muster enough House Democrats to pass the Senate health care bill with a reconciliation fix, and then Amy Sullivan analysis of how the fragile majoirty that passed the House bill may founder over abortion, I heard myself mouthing former Counterterroism chief Richard Clark's words at the 9/11 Commission hearings: "your government failed you...I failed you."

If Congress does not pass a comprehensive health care reform bill this year, that will constitute a massive collective failure in which we all share.

Republicans will have failed in their callous disregard for the plight of tens of millions of uninsured and tens more millions underinsured Americans,and in their willingness to place political gain ahead of the welfare of the people they are elected to serve. They will have failed in their success at scuttling  the country's best hope of bending the health care cost curve and thus laying the basis for a sustainable fiscal future.

Progressive activists will have failed in their refusal to recognize that for all its concessions to industry and to the spending inhibitions of the most conservative senators in the Democratic caucus, the bill that passed the Senate maintains the capacity to transform our health care system vastly for the better. They will have failed to recognize that the bill's limitations were imposed by the constraints of the Constitution and the filibuster and the U.S. electorate, that it could not be more sweeping than the most conservative Democrats would allow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reconciliation explanation fail, cont.

Recently Jonathan Chait called out The New York Times for failing to spell out that the Democrats are not trying to pass their whole health care bill through reconciliation, but rather to use reconciliation to "patch" the Senate bill:
Now that they've lost the ability to break a filibuster, Democrats plan to have the House pass the Senate bill, and then use reconciliation to enact changes to the Senate bill demanded by the House. These changes -- higher subsidy levels, different kinds of taxes to pay for them, nixing the Nebraska Medicaid deal -- mainly involve taxes and spending. In other words, they're exactly the kinds of policies that are well-suited for reconciliation.

It's not just The Hill that misses the distinction, but the whole political media. Here's Sunday's New York Times:
Many Democrats in Congress said they doubted that it was feasible to pass a major health care bill with a parliamentary tool called reconciliation, which is used to speed adoption of budget and tax legislation. Reconciliation requires only 51 votes for passage in the Senate, but entails procedural and political risks.
Again, using reconciliation to patch up the Senate bill is a totally different thing than using it to pass an entire health care bill. I can understand why Republicans would treat them as identical -- they're spinning for partisan purposes. Reporters covering this issue have no good excuse.

Today, it's The Wall Street Journal that fails in this basic bit of exposition in its report on Obama's health care proposal:

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Talking points m.o.

Remember this from John Boehner and Eric Cantor, in a letter to Rahm Emanuel dated Feb. 8?
If the President intends to present any kind of legislative proposal at this discussion, will he make it available to members of Congress and the American people at least 72 hours beforehand?Our ability to move forward in a bipartisan way through this discussion rests on openness and transparency.
 Different times, different circumstances, I guess, today:
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized the White House's plan to post a health care reform proposal online, just days before the upcoming health care summit. "You know, apparently we're going to be there most of the day and have an opportunity to have a lot of discussion," said McConnell. "But if they're going lay out the plan they want to pass four days in advance, then why are -- what are we discussing on Thursday?"

I realize that these guys are, technically, different people. But a party line is a party line, especially if you're a Republican. They need to get their (bull)shit together.

Related posts:
Calling Boehner Cantor et al
The earth beneath their feet: Obama recasts health care reform
Aghanistan redux: Obama's HCR surge
Obama picks "none of the above" again
A gallon of water at bedtime for bedwetters: Obama's HCR prescription
How Obama will -- and won't -- lead on health care

Chait, is the gate "wide open"?

Jonathan Chait has argued since the darkest dog days of August that inexorable political logic will ultimately lead the Democrats to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill. Serial resurrections of the bill have seemed to confirm Chait's perspicuity.  I hope and pray that he's right.  But I fear that at this point he is underestimating the the tenuousness of the effort to get across the goal line. And I fear that the public option boomlet may cause a fumble.

Chait makes it all sound so easy...
Some of us realized all along that there was no rational reason that the Massachusetts election had to kill health care reform. Fundamentally, the main barrier -- getting sixty votes in the Senate -- had already been crossed. The remaining obstacles are puny. All the Democrats needed to do was have the House pass the Senate bill. If they insisted on changes, most of those could easily be made through reconciliation, which only requires a majority vote in the Senate...the legislative door to health care reform is wide open, and Democrats simply need to walk through's fairly easy to just have the House pass the Senate bill, then use reconciliation to eliminate the Nebraska Medicaid subsidy and change the mix of taxes that pay for new coverage.
"Wide open" is quite a stretch. It's far from "fairly easy to just have the House pass the Senate bill."  The House passed its own bill 220-215 in November and has since lost 3 votes - Murtha through death, Wexler through resignation, and Cao through reversal.  That bill only squeezed through because the Stupak Amendment brought 28 blue dogs aboard. Passing the Senate bill means abjuring the Stupak Amendment.  Perhaps the more conservative nature of the Senate bill will add a few more blue dogs -- if the booming movement to include the public option in the reconciliation package doesn't hit critical mass. On the other side of the Hill, no one seems to know whether a negotiated reconciliation patch can capture 51 votes.

The door seems as about as wide open as the eye of a needle for a camel.

Related posts:
The earth beneath their feet: Obama recasts health care reform
Aghanistan redux: Obama's HCR surge
Obama picks "none of the above" again
A gallon of water at bedtime for bedwetters: Obama's HCR prescription
How Obama will -- and won't -- lead on health care

Matt Miller's self-cancelling 'don't worry about the deficit now' argument

Matt Miller's argument that worries about the Federal deficit are overblown is self-cancelling.

The argument has two prongs. First, per his experience in the Clinton administration in 1993, he suggests that current deficit forecasts are often overblown.  A period of strong growth can change the picture fast. Second, Miller asserts that we more or less know what to do but lack the political courage.

The second point at least is incontrovertible.  Miller sketches out two key planks of likely deficit reduction: breaking Obama's pledge not to raise taxes on people making less than $250k per year and "trimming social security benefits for better-off retirees."  In other words, raise taxes and cut benefits.

But his argument that we should not worry now about the looming need to do just that makes no sense.  Blame Obama if you will for his no-new-taxes-under-$250k pledge. (I do: I have always thought that David Brooks' one valid fundamental criticism of Obama during the campaign was that this pledge would box him in.) Or defend it as a valid attempt to avoid the recurrent pattern of Republicans destroying our finances with tax cuts and Democrats getting killed at the polls for raising them -- as they did in 1994 -- by getting as much juice as possible out of taxing the wealthy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rudolph Penner points a steep path toward budget salvation: tax reform and health care reform

As Ezra Klein points out, the long-range budget options laid out in a detailed analysis of the nation's fiscal future under the leadership of the Urban Institute's Rudolph Penner, who was director of the CBO under Reagan, are sobering.  The report, Choosing Our Nation's Fiscal Future, was prepared by a committee organized by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration.

The report lays out four menu options designed to cap the national debt at 60% of GDP by 2020, ranging from freezing taxation at current levels and cutting spending accordingly, to maintaining benefits at current levels and raising taxes accordingly. The consequences of freezing tax rates at current levels are scary. That would require a Paul Ryan-like budget converting Medicare and Medicaid to a system of vouchers of rapidly diminishing value. Maintaining benefits at current levels in its turn generates daunting tax requirements: top marginal tax rates of 50%, a VAT rising to 8%, payroll tax of 15% with a surtax on top.  Imagine Democrats trying to impose those hikes over the decades.

The report suggests that the challenge would be more manageable, however, if structural tax reform is coupled with effective health care cost control. Tax reform would entail elimination of myriad deductions and exemptions to which we've grown addicted. Here's how Penner presented this kind of tax reform to the Atlantic's Derek Thompson:
The other approach was to radically reform the tax system, getting rid of all tax expenditures [such as tax exclusions for employer health care and pension contributions ... see more here] like capping the employer health exclusion. It's really, really remarkable how much money you get back from tax expenditures, especially from capping the health exclusion. We could actually lower rates over time with that solution to the situation, while keeping the overall tax burden the same.
The elimination of "tax expenditures," as described by Penner in his Senate testimony, would be coupled with just a two-tier income tax - 10% starting at an income of $22,475, and 25% starting at $44,950. Fiscal Future claims that  "[t]he economic waste ("deadweight loss") to economic directly related to marginal tax rates. As marginal rates rise, these efficiency losses rise more than proportionally, roughly as the square of marginal tax rates."  The paper also asserts that various targeted tax incentives (tax expenditures) such as retirement savings or mortgage interest deductions distort economic behavior and so allocate resources less efficiently.

Tax expenditures have long been beloved by both parties -- by Republicans, because they are by definition tax cuts, and by Democrats, because in our right-leaning polity they're often the most politically palatable way to provide breaks to lower and middle class voters; Republicans find them difficult to oppose. Hence the number of targeted tax breaks for individuals has more than doubled since 1974.

I imagine that many economists would dispute the claim that all targeted tax breaks create non-beneficial incentives and economic waste.  A reasonable takeaway from this paper, however, would seem to be that eliminating or limiting some major deductions would yield major revenue and greatly reduce the extent of needed across-the-board tax hikes such as a VAT or increased payroll tax. (There seems to be near consensus, for example, that the current form of the mortgage exemption skews incentives.)  Fiscal Future presents along with each of its four future tax scenarios an equivalent alternative under a radically simplified tax structure that eliminates all "tax expenditures" except the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The paper acknowledges, though, that "[t]he current tax structure...and the simplified tax structure discussed here represent two 'bookends,' with many possibilities in between."  One can imagine the mammoth political battles that may come regarding which tax carve-outs to eliminate or radically reduce.

The Senate health bill's excise tax on expensive plans provides a foretaste of such battles. Penner's perspective on the health care tax exemption highlights why Obama is hell-bent on preserving the excise tax in the Senate bill, in the face of furious opposition from unions and House Democrats. The excise tax indirectly caps the health insurance deduction for employers. Proponents expect it both to provide significant revenue and to restrain health care cost growth.  It's a modest step toward eliminating the health care tax exemption for employers, as the Wyden-Bennett alternative HCR bill -- which at present remains a Utopian bipartisan dream -- would do.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Shorter Scott Brown"

Reading the suicide screed of the IRS kamikaze bomber, my first thought was that it was a distillation of the  noxious brew of inchoate rage that's fueling the tea party movement. Then I thought, don't go there -- let's not insta- politicize the paranoid homicidal insanity of someone who complains of "the storm raging in my head." True, Stack understood his own grievance as a political one, but he was so clearly insane that I would hesitate to impute his craziness to the tenor of ideas that his resemble, even if those ideas are finding extreme expression in what now passes for our mainstream. But then, Scott Brown swiftly drew a political moral, expressing implicit approval of the focal points of Stack's insane rage:
Appearing on Fox News soon after Stack flew an airplane into a building, Brown told the national television audience that he "feels for the families" affected by the attack. In the next breath, however, the senator added:
"I don't know if it's related but I can just sense not only in my election, but since being here in Washington, people are frustrated. They want transparency. They want their elected officials to be accountable and open and talk about the things affecting their daily lives. So I am not sure if there is a connection, I certainly hope not, but we need to do things better."
Brown added that an incident like the one in Austin is "extreme," but added, "No one likes paying taxes obviously."
A commenter on Steve Benen's site caught Brown's logic perfectly:
Shorter Scott Brown: People are so frustrated and despairing that they are starting to do dangerous and crazy things, like crashing planes and voting for people like me.
Viewed another way, Scott's reaction is analogous to that of people who clucked that the 9/11 attack was deplorable but understandable, given U.S. actions in the Middle East.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Calling Boehner Cantor et al...

Remember that demand from the House Republican leadership that the White House put up a health care plan for all to see 72 hours in advance of the health care summit?  Er....
WASHINGTON  [AP]— The White House and congressional leaders are preparing a detailed health care proposal designed to win passage without Republican support if GOP lawmakers fail to embrace bipartisan compromises at President Barack Obama's summit next week.

A senior White House official said Thursday that Democratic negotiators are resolving final differences in House and Senate health bills that passed last year with virtually no Republican help. The White House plans to post the proposals online by Monday morning, three days ahead of the Feb. 25 summit, which GOP leaders are approaching warily
I have struggled, here here and here, with my own tendency to see a coherent strategy in Obama's apparent dithering on health care since the Jan. 19 debacle in Massachusetts.  The wish may be father to the thought. Still, I am holding my breath. The pieces may be clicking into place. The summit certainly has Obama's signature on it.

P.S. I cannot wait to hear Obama answer this:
But Cantor has now made it official: He’s in. “He plans to ask the President why he hasn’t listened to the American people, who have rejected the approach that the President, the Speaker, and Leader Reid have taken,” Dayspring said, adding that Cantor will also “discuss Republican ideas that lower health care costs, which the CBO has confirmed.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Levinson's "Our Undemocratic Constitution": a book whose time has come?

This Swampland roundup of disaffection with the Beltway reminds me why this weekend I was moved to check out of the nearest college library Sanford Levinson's Our Undemocratic Constitution (2006), a book whose moment, I would think, has arrived. From Swampland:
--D.C. dysfunction seems to be the theme of the day. Bayh says it's why he's retiring. Former Clinton chief of staff and Center for American Progress president John Podesta, citing GOP obstructionism, says the political environment "sucks." Tea Party angst over big government run amok lands on the front page of the New York Times. A Wall Street Journal headline trumpets: "Senate Woes Flag Wider Disease." The efficacy of Washington today can certainly be debated -- Norman Ornstein recently argued the 111th Congress has been the most productive in decades -- but there is at least a widespread perception that something is broken inside the beltway.
In Our Undemocratic Constitution, Levinson argues that we need a Constitutional Convention to adapt the document to our current needs. He portrays the Constitution as a blueprint for legislative sclerosis and misrepresentation of the will of the people. He indicts the "triple veto" on legislation: the Senate can kill a House bill, the House a Senate bill, and the President a House-Senate bill. He details the distortions and indeed dangers imposed by long lame-duck tenures for Congress and for the President.  He laments the power that life tenure confers on unelected judges, and exposes dangerous ambiguity in the delineation of the powers of the President..  Overarching all is the Constitutionally imposed difficulty of amending the Constitution; Levinson points out that "no other country -- nor, for that matter, any of the fifty American states -- makes it so difficult to amend its Constitution." But the centerpiece of democratic dysfunction is, natch, the Senate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Greece, hanging on a cross of Euros; U.S., hanging on a dollar-yuan?

Michael Pettis,  a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, suggests that a currency yoking together strong and weak economies, as the Euro does, imposes on the weaker countries something like the gold standard:

In the meetings where we discussed the euro I nearly always made reference to a thesis argued in Barry Eichengreen’s magisterial Golden Fetters (one of my favorite books) that the political enfranchisement after WW1 of very large segments of the population in Western democracies – most crucially the working classes, who historically bore most of the pain of adjustment – meant that the traditional adjustment mechanisms under the gold standard, which were deflation and rising unemployment, would prevent democracies ever from returning to the gold standard.  Politics would make it impossible (and probably a good thing, too).

The pain of adjusting

This has an important implication for the discussion on the euro.  Unfortunately the euro today imposes a kind of gold standard on European countries – it forces them to adjust to excessively high domestic prices, large trade deficits, and/or large fiscal deficits in the same way they would have had to adjust under the gold standard, and I don’t think that is politically likely to be acceptable.  The countries that need depreciation to regain competitiveness or monetization of the debt to regain control of the deficit will have to choose between adjusting via deflation and high unemployment or exiting the euro.  Politics makes the latter more likely.

Pettis draws an analogy between the position of weaker countries in the Eurozone relative to export power Genrmany and the U.S. vis-a-vis China and sees a similar need for trade rebalancing in the Eurozone and in the world at large:

On educating voters

The Times' Robert Pear reports that labor leaders are backing away from the pre-Scott Brown compromise forged between House and Senate Democrats over the excise tax in the health care reform bill, on grounds that "the proposal is too high a price to pay for the limited health care package they expect to emerge from Congress."

If that's true, it would seem that labor leaders don't expect the House to pass the Senate bill with a "reconciliation sidecar," which is very bad news.   Also striking, though, is the article's snapshot of the extent to which attacks on the bill from all sides have penetrated voters' perceptions, whereas its virtues have not. The attacks cross-fertilize: 

At meetings of the House Democratic Caucus, lawmakers from Massachusetts, including Representatives Edward J. Markey and Richard E. Neal, said they were struck by the vehemence of opposition to the tax in their districts.

Mr. Markey recalled that a constituent had poked him in the chest and said: “Eddie, I’ve voted for you my whole life. But if you think you will tax my benefits and give the money to Ben Nelson in Nebraska, you’re crazy.” Senator Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, voted for the bill after it was rewritten to provide extra Medicaid money to his state.
To which there's an obvious response: if the excise bill is in there, the Nelson giveaway won't be. Even Nelson has asked that the special deal for Nebraska be removed from the bill. So any deal that House Democrats cut that allows a portion of the Senate bill's excise tax to remain in place would entail getting rid of the Nelson deal.

Markey does not say that he did not make that point to the voter. But so many Democrats seem so cowed by every line of attack, no matter how partial, trivial, misleading, disingenuous  -- it's agonizing to watch them cringe.

The view from Pakistan: what capture? what advance?

Some pushback on U.S. government and media narratives from Pakistani media:

From Dawn:
ISLAMABAD: Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Tuesday branded as “propaganda” reports that the top Taliban military commander had been arrested in a joint Pakistani-US spy operation.

Speaking to reporters outside parliament in Islamabad, the cabinet minister stopped short of either confirming or denying the media reports.

The New York Times and other US media cited US government officials as saying that US and Pakistani intelligence services arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi “several days ago”.

“We are verifying all those we have arrested. If there is any big target, I will show the nation,” Malik said.

“If the New York Times gives information, it is not a divine truth, it can be wrong. We have joint intelligence sharing and no joint investigation, nor joint raids,” Malik added.

“We are a sovereign state and hence will not allow anybody to come and do any operation. And we will not allow that. So this (report) is propaganda,” he added. 
And from Daily Times:

Taliban allow US troops very little advancement in Marjah

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lindsey Graham lets the mask slip

Lindsey Graham has emerged as the most formidable roadblock to the Administration's effort to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Christmas bomber Umar Abdulmutallab and other accused terrorists in civilian court.

According to Jane Mayer, Graham conditioned his offer to help the Administration close Guantanamo on the Adminstration dropping its plans for civilian trials. 

Graham, a former military lawyer and a main author of the Military Commissions Act of 2009, which added some protections for defendants to the kangaroo courts established by the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has insisted early and often that trying al Qaeda operatives in civilian courts is a national security risk, primarily on grounds that the prosecution in a criminal trial must disclose to the defense the identity of known co-conspirators (of this risk Mayer reports, after detailing Holder's consultation with top Pentagon lawyers and intelligence officials "A lawyer familiar with the discussion told me, “Suffice it to say, if there was serious concern about revelation of sources and methods by the intelligence community you would have heard a lot of howling).”

Graham has not been demagoging national security issues with the vehemence and transparent ignorance of many of his Republican colleagues. He credits the Administration for its drone attacks and other aggressive action against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Perhaps he is sincere in his vehement advocacy for military commissions.

Nonetheless, in remarks to the AP's Matt Apuzzo, Graham's mask as guardian of national security seemed to slip a bit. Note the grounds on which he criticized Holder's handling of terrorist suspects in custody (my emphasis):

The earth beneath their feet: Obama recasts health care reform

Reading the Obama Administration's letter setting out the terms of the Feb. 25 health care summit, it struck me that the obvious has crept up on us by inches. It's this: moving in his own deliberate fashion, President Obama has doubled down on health care reform.  Rather than gather his Democratic flock in the immediate aftermath of the Massachusetts debacle, he has moved the political ground beneath them as well as the Republicans.  He has issued a put-up-or-shut-up to the whole Congress. Of course, he knows that only the Democrats have something to put up. But he is going to make them put it up -- even if they vote it down. 

Look at how the work order, so to speak, is framed (the letter is under the signature of Rahm Emanuel and Kathleen Sebelius):
We have seen again in recent days that when it comes to health care, the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. The proof is right in front of us: just last week, a major insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, announced plans to increase premiums for many of its policyholders in California by as much as 39 percent on March 1.

As the President noted this week, if we don’t act on comprehensive health insurance reform, this enormous rate hike will be "just a preview of coming attractions. Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance; millions more will lose their coverage altogether; our deficits will continue to grow larger."

Now is the time to act on behalf of the millions of Americans and small businesses who are counting on meaningful health insurance reform. In the last year, there has been an extraordinary effort to craft effective legislation. There have been hundreds of hours of committee hearings and mark-ups in both the House of Representatives and Senate, with nearly all of those sessions televised on C-SPAN. The Senate spent over 160 hours on the Senate floor considering health insurance reform legislation and, for the first time in history, both the House of Representatives and Senate have approved comprehensive health reform legislation. This is the closest our Nation has been to resolving this issue in the nearly 100 years that it has been debated...[snip]

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sullivan's Song of Myself

Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's cultural editor, has stirred up a hurtful brouhaha with a broadside against Andrew Sullivan implying that Sullivan's sometimes intemperate criticism of Israel and AIPAC is antisemitic. To be more precise, since Wieseltier prides himself on precision of argument, he accuses Sullivan of indulging in tropes and patterns of association that are favored by antisemites. He avoids a straight charge of antisemitism, protesting, "it is impossible to know what is in a man’s heart; but on the basis of what Sullivan has written, I would urge him to search his heart." But his assertion that "Sullivan looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left" pretty much seals the deal.

Wieseltier's attack reads almost like a parody of an accusation of antisemitism, so slender are the alleged taproots from Sullivan's comments into the classic antisemitic tropes Wieseltier identifies in them. Sullivan often shoots from the hip, and some of his accusations and judgmental pronouncements are unsupported; recently he has turned his ire against Israel's actions in Lebanon, Gaza, and the settlements. Drained of the poison of the antisemitism charge, Wieseltier's complaints about the emotionalism, the lack of editorial superego in Sullivan's blogging (some of it), might have some force. Jeffrey Goldberg has called out Sullivan's indiscipline in denouncing recent Israeli conduct more temperately and more effectively than Wieseltier. Wieseltier's attempted takedowns even of Sullivan's logic fail on their own terms.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Don't get her wrong

Rahm Emanuel should be flattered that Sarah Palin thinks he should resign. She probably also thinks that he should publish a ghost-written book, get a TV show and run for President.

Building a new world order as China rises

Last week, Aryind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute argued in the FT that China's exchange rate policy hurt other developing countries even more than it hurt the U.S., and so the U.S., rather than taking the burden of trying to move Chinese policy on its own, should put together what you might call (okay, what I called) a coalition of the wounded:
It is time to move beyond the global imbalance perspective and see China’s exchange rate policy for what it is: mercantilist trade policy, whose costs are borne more by countries competing with China – namely other developing and emerging market countries – than by rich countries. The circle of countries taking a stand against China must be widened beyond the US to ramp up the pressure on it to repudiate its beggar-thy-neighbourism. But progress also requires that the silent victims speak up.

Today, also in the FT, Jeffrey Garten of Yale makes a complementary argument, looking to the longer term. Garten, too, argues that broad groupings of nations need to cooperate to help move Chinese policy to serve the common interest. But he's looking not so much at short-term goals around which coalitions can coalesce, but rather  in effect to gradually build a new world order: to strengthen existing multipolar organizations like the WTO and build new ones in which China will want to participate:

Monday, February 08, 2010

Afghanistan redux: Obama's HCR surge

More on the similarities noted below in the way Obama approached revamping his strategy in Afghanistan and on health care reform post-Massachusetts:  in both cases, he was faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation (at least partly of his own making on the HCR front), accompanied by loud warnings of failure. In both, he "dithered" while calls for rapid response escalated. In both, he was confronted with an apparent menu of unattractive or highly problematic options (cut bait or escalate). In both, he forged a new strategy that did not compromise on the stated goal but mapped out an unforeseen path (or rather, a variation on the apparent path) to get there. Both of those strategies entailed a "hurry up slowly" strategy that postponed a desired end (drawdown of U.S. troops, passage of a full-scale HCR bill) but put it on a strict timeline.

Both strategies hinge on creating a space to change perceptions and realities before taking the decisive action. Both entail publicly reaching out to implacable foes while implementing a "surge" designed either to defeat or coopt them -- and also designed to win the war of ideas while holding out the olive branch. (Come to think of it, Obama's approach to jobs and deficit reduction also follows this two-step pattern.)

There's no telling whether either strategy will work.  Perhaps the odds are against both. But it's the kind of risk-taking I can believe in -- the kind where the risks inherent in all of the alternatives are worse. Risk management, in other words.

As in Afghanistan, Obama picks "none of the above" from the HCR menu

There would seem to be large risks inherent in Obama's planned half-day health care summit with leaders of both parties on Feb. 26. It's the final farewell to HCR supporters' fervent wish that the House would swiftly pass the Senate bill with an agreed-on reconciliation blueprint -- a dream that was already dead. It risks letting more House Democrats twist and pull in multiple directions if their political outlook continues to deteriorate. 

It should be recognized, though, that the plan is completely consistent with the strategy that Obama has outlined at least since the State of the Union address -- and in fact, as I have argued in detail, since his Jan. 21 interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which Obama was less than clear and seemed -- accidentally, I think -- to indicate that he was open to a scaled-back bill.  The steps that he's outlined -- and begun to execute -- with increasing clarity since that point are these: re-present the pending bill to the American people; defend its "core elements"; explain why they cannot be pulled apart; solicit Republican "ideas" and expose their vacuity; get the Republicans on record in the interim stonewalling a jobs bill and tough banking regulations. This public campaign is designed to generate political cover for Democrats to pass the Senate bill with reconciliation fixes -- or, best case, to pick off a Republican or two with a high-profile concession such as building tort reform into HCR, and so enabling a normal Senate-House bill merger procedure.

In fact, the apparent risks of the summit are largely illusory.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

On jumping off our Constitutional shadow

In an extended meditation over whether the United States retains the ability to cope with current problems and thrive anew, James Fallows recently concluded that the country's actual problems are manageable -- but wondered whether our political machinery maintains the ability to cope with them. The dysfunctions that struck Fallows as most intractable derive from a Constitution that has bequeathed us an increasingly unrepresentative Senate, compounded by Senate rules that evolved over time into a formula for gridlock.

A recent lament by Jonathan Chait highlights the extent to which Senate dysfunction is a product of norms of behavior as much as rules on paper (or parchment):
Many of the changes in American politics over the past three decades have involved the two parties slowly doing away with social norms that preventing them from using every tool at their disposal. The Senate minority could filibuster every single bill the majority proposed, but you just didn’t do that, until you did. You could use a House-Senate conference to introduce completely new provisions into a bill, but you just didn’t do that, until you did. (The topic became common in the Bush administration.) The possibility was always there to use endless amendments to filibuster a reconciliation bill. But nobody thought to do that until Republicans floated the tactic this week.

The “hold” is a now similar tool to what the filibuster was forty years ago. It’s a sparingly-used weapon meant to signal an unusually intense preference. A Congressional scholar reports that putting a blanket hold on all the president’s nominees has never been done before. But there’s no rule that says you can’t. It’s just not done,  until it is...

...history shows that you can’t count on social norms to prevent competing parties from trying to maximize their advantage. The only way to change this kind of behavior is to change the rules.
Few would dispute that when norms deteriorate, rules must be changed to shape new norms (hence the consensus that the country's financial regulation must be overhauled).  But there's a chicken-and-egg element in the interaction between rules and norms.

We like to think of the U.S. as a nation of laws. But laws only work to the extent that they breed norms and taboos that predispose those bound by them to obey the spirit as well as the letter.  The Bush years highlighted the extent to which the U.S. had been until that point a nation of customs -- norms to which those in government broadly bound themselves.  To paraphrase Chait: the President couldn't assert that his capacity as commander-in-chief in wartime gave him the authority to break all laws and treaties at will, until he did.  The CIA could not limit the definition of torture to actions causing major organ failure until it did (or until the Justice Department did).  The Justice Department could not impose political litmus tests on employees and job candidates, until it did.  The EPA and other Federal agencies could not edit their own scientific conclusions out of their published reports, until they did.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Plouffe of the pudding is in the (OFA) email.

A few days ago, waiting for Godobama to move on health care, I wondered, "In the wake of the MA election, why isn't OFA asking supporters to call their reps and senators and tell them to pass a comprehensive HCR bill? (By mass email, that is. Some readers reported getting phone calls.)

Today, OFA sent out an email with the subject line: Pass health reform now.

It doesn't (natch) ask members to tell their House reps to pass the Senate bill, or their senators to negotiate a reconciliation patch to mollify the House. It's focused on a letter-writing campaign. But the message is unequivocal:
This isn't a problem we can kick down the road for another decade -- or even another year. We need to pass health reform now.

We're incredibly close. But too many in Washington are now saying that we should delay or give up on reform entirely. So we need to make it crystal clear that Americans understand the stakes for our economy and our lives, and that we want action.  
Are you listening, Bill Pascrell?

Meanwhile, this very day, Obama shed the ambiguity cloak, telling the DNC:

Friday, February 05, 2010

A gallon of water at bedtime for bedwetters: Obama's HCR prescription

Once again, Obama will not meet the cravings of ardent supporters of comprhensive health care reform. He simply refuses to step in aggressively and steer floundering  House-Senate negotiations for a "reconciliation sidecar" that would make the Senate bill palatable to the House.  As Jonathan Cohn outlined with perfect clarity last night, the basic structure of such a deal is as plain as the forever-postponed deal between Israelis and Palestinians. But Obama refuses to catalyze it -- now.  That's notwitstanding the litany of prominent Democrats --  Weiner, Sherrod Brown, Franken, Sanders -- openly exhorting him to weigh in decisively.

Obama wants to first step back and redress what he's acknowledged as errors in communication and process and rebuild support for the bill before asking House members to vote for it. He is gesturing toward bringing Republicans back in because he wants to expose the bankruptcy of their proposals; he is defending the passed bills' essentials; he wants also wants time to highlight Republican intransigence and do-nothingism on creating jobs and reforming the financial system.  The Times reports that Obama laid the strategy out at a fundraiser last night:
At the fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee later on Thursday, however, Mr. Obama said that once Congressional Democrats had worked out their differences and settled on a final bill, he would push for a vibrant, public debate over the health care legislation. He said he planned “to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas.”

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The contortions of Brooke Buchanan

I would not like to be John McCain's spokesperson Brooke Buchanan these days.  Between her boss's disregard for facts and his complete reversals of past positions, the poor woman's got a lot of 'splainin' to do.

Here's Brooke (via TPM) after McCain insisted on TV last night that Christmas bomber Umar Abdulmutallab bought a one-way ticket to Detroit -- two weeks after being corrected on air for making the same mistake:
McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan tells us that the senator is "aware now" that Abdulmutallab was not on a one-way ticket.

"The initial reports are where Senator McCain was taking the information was from," she says. "He's actually focused on bigger things, like making sure this doesn't happen again."
 That is, he's too focused on the problem to bother with facts.

Brooke also had to go into action after McCain declared himself "disappointed" that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen both stated unequivocally that they supported repeal of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military.

Against the Weak Yuan, a Coalition of the Wounded?

To the rising chorus of voices crying, "China is mercantalist," Aryind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute adds a fresh perspective: China's exchange rate policy primarily hurts other developing countries:
It is time to move beyond the global imbalance perspective and see China’s exchange rate policy for what it is: mercantilist trade policy, whose costs are borne more by countries competing with China – namely other developing and emerging market countries – than by rich countries. The circle of countries taking a stand against China must be widened beyond the US to ramp up the pressure on it to repudiate its beggar-thy-neighbourism. But progress also requires that the silent victims speak up. Emerging market and developing countries must do a “Google” on China.
That is, it's time to assemble a coalition of the wounded:
Hence the third consequence. By default, it has fallen to the US to carry the burden of seeking to change renminbi policy. But it cannot succeed because China will not be seen as giving in to pressure from its only rival for superpower status. Only a wider coalition, comprising all countries affected by China’s undervalued exchange rate, stands any chance of impressing upon China the consequences of its policy and reminding it of its international responsibilities as a large, systemically important trader.
Bearing this thesis out, China today upped the ante on U.S. complaints about the yuan:

To coin a PostPalinism....

Sully adds the italics to a tidbit from Andrea Stone's account of Alaskans' current thoughts about their onetime half-term governor:
Moments earlier, another woman, who called herself a conservative Republican, spoke incredulously about the "cynicism" of national Republicans in choosing someone clearly unqualified for the vice presidency. "How in the world could they?" she asked. "The phenomenon of Sarah Palin exists because people are uninformed politically." (Like several people interviewed, she refused to be identified for fear of "retribution" from Palin and her allies.)
In Wasilla, do they call it retribWootion?  RetribWooten?  

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How Obama will -- and won't -- lead on health care reform

Steve Benen has the very section of Obama's meeting with Senate Democrats (cut up and elided) that I was struggling to transcribe from the tape:
"All that's changed in the last few weeks is our party has gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second-largest Senate majority in a generation," Obama said. "If anybody is searching for a lesson from Massachusetts, I promise you the answer is not to do nothing."

He added, "I know these are tough times to hold public office. The need is great; the anger and anguish are intense." While "the natural political instinct is to tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe," he said, Democrats should remember the promises they made in their election campaigns.

"So many of us campaigned on the idea that we're going to change this health-care system" Obama said. ..So many of us looked people in the eye who had been denied because of a pre-existing condition, or just didn't have health insurance at all ... and we said we were going to change it..*. "Well, here we are with a chance to change it....I hope we don't lose sight of why we're here. We've got to finish the job on health care."  We've got to finish the job on regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Summers channels Krugman chanelling Uncle Sam(uelson)

Compare Larry Summers' message at Davos (relayed by Gideon Rachman) to Paul Krugman's shot across China's bow back on New Year's Day.

Larry Summers, the chief economic adviser in the White House, was rather more subtle in his flirtation with protectionism. He told the Davos audience that one in five American men aged between their mid-20s and their mid-50s is now out of work. In the 1960s, he pointed out, 95 per cent of this age cohort had been employed. Mr Summers was careful to say that the US remains committed to open trade and can gain from globalisation. But he also pointed out that Paul Samuelson, a famous economist (and uncle of Mr Summers), had argued that the case for free trade might not apply when countries were trading with nations that were pursuing mercantilist policies. The reference to China did not need to be spelled out.
I usually hear two reasons for not confronting China over its [mercantilist] policies. Neither holds water....

...there’s the claim that protectionism is always a bad thing, in any circumstances. If that’s what you believe, however, you learned Econ 101 from the wrong people — because when unemployment is high and the government can’t restore full employment, the usual rules don’t apply.

Let me quote from a classic paper by the late Paul Samuelson, who more or less created modern economics: “With employment less than full ... all the debunked mercantilistic arguments” — that is, claims that nations who subsidize their exports effectively steal jobs from other countries — “turn out to be valid.” He then went on to argue that persistently misaligned exchange rates create “genuine problems for free-trade apologetics.” The best answer to these problems is getting exchange rates back to where they ought to be. But that’s exactly what China is refusing to let happen.

1995 Redux: Call the Republicans' shut-down-the-Senate bluff

It's a given by now that Republicans will do all they can to obstruct any deal between House and Senate Democrats entailing the House passing the Senate health care bill and amending it through the reconciliation process. Jeff Davis, Greg Sargent and Karen Tumulty have explained in numbing detail how Senate Republicans can stall reconciliation fixes. Sargent:
The GOP Senate leadership has privately settled on a strategy to derail health reform if Dems try to pass the Senate bill with a fix through reconciliation, aides say: Unleash an endless stream of amendments designed to stall for time and to force Dems to take untenable votes.
The aide described the planned GOP strategy as a “free for all of amendments,” vowing Dems would face “a mountain of amendments so politically toxic they'll make the first health debate look like a post office naming.”
Notwithstanding the difficulties, what remains striking is the difference in political will between the two parties. Republicans, as ever, will act as a body to do whatever it takes to get what they want -- the death of comprehensive health care reform, a Waterloo for Obama, an electoral debacle for the Democrats to dwarf 1994.