Thursday, March 14, 2013

Obama, the GOP's enabler

The president's powers are limited. The president's powers are limited. The president's powers are limited.

It's the mantra both of political scientists and progressive commentators like Greg Sargent and Steve Benen, driven mad almost on a daily basis by "both-sides-are-to-blame" commentators on the budget impasse who won't acknowledge that Republicans refuse to compromise, i.e. consider any new revenue as a component of deficit reduction.

In the legislative arena, the president really has one concrete power: the veto. When it comes to budgetary matters, that power is closely related to his ability to "set the agenda," since appropriations must be renewed on a regular basis (and new debt authorized) or the government ceases to function. Sunsetting legislation like the Bush tax cuts also sets up deadline/crisis points.

As a funding (or tax) deadline looms, the president can set out parameters for what he regards as fair and prudent legislation and say, I will sign when satisfactory legislation reaches my desk.

That's what Bill Clinton did in response to the massive cuts to Medicaid and Medicare that the GOP-controlled Congress wrote into their bills in 1995. He faced down their threats not to raise the debt ceiling (not taken too seriously at that stage in our development) and to shut down the government by not sending funding bills that met his terms (which happened twice).

That's what Chris Christie did in his first legislative battles in New Jersey. He set his terms and announced that he would sit back, crack open a beer and wait for legislation that met them.

The catch is, you have to be willing to trigger a crisis if the "qualifying" legislation never arrives. That's what Obama has never been willing to do.
Admittedly, the stakes were much higher, the economy more fragile and the opposition much more extreme than in Clinton's time. At least two of Obama's major punts, in December 2010 and in late July 2011, are defensible and may have been prudent (though I believe he tilted the playing field against himself in 2011 as the debt ceiling showdown developed).

In each case, however, he has signaled that he is the one not willing to risk a crisis and its effect on the economy.  Here's how he defended his December 2010 deal extending the Bush tax cuts for two years in exchange for other stimulus:
CHUCK TODD: If I may follow, aren’t you telegraphing, though, a negotiating strategy of how the Republicans can beat you in negotiations all the way through the next year because they can just stick to their guns, stay united, be unwilling to budge -- to use your words -- and force you to capitulate?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think so. And the reason is because this is a very unique circumstance. This is a situation in which tens of millions of people would be directly damaged and immediately damaged, and at a time when the economy is just about to recover.
Here's Obama on July 31, 2011, announcing the results of the debt ceiling stickup:
Now, is this the deal I would have preferred?  No...But...Most importantly, it will allow us to avoid default and end the crisis that Washington imposed on the rest of America.  It ensures also that we will not face this same kind of crisis again in six months, or eight months, or 12 months.  And it will begin to lift the cloud of debt and the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over our economy. 
Here is a report of his thinking as he agreed to McConnell's terms for avoiding the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff:
But Obama decided not to walk away from negotiations, despite earlier claims by his aides that he would be willing to go over the cliff. Biden emerged as a key voice in encouraging the president to stay on track with a deal.

The president did not believe the dynamic would suddenly shift in his favor after Jan. 1, rejecting the conventional wisdom in Washington that all sides would have more flexibility after higher tax rates took effect. Republicans were no more likely to compromise after the deadline than before it, the White House concluded. And there was a very real fear that a resolution wouldn’t come for weeks, perhaps not before the country hit the debt limit in late February — a nightmare scenario that the president believed would destroy not only his leverage but also the still-fragile economy.
I'm sorry, that is just wrong.  The consequences for the GOP of failing to compromise at this point would have been $3.6 trillion in new revenue over ten years, effectively written into law by the GOP twelve years ago.  That was Obama's one point of real leverage, the one justification for the punt in August 2011.  As for the debt ceiling threat, it's still here.

And one more time here is Obama, modulated through another conflict-averse party voice, abjuring a showdown at the March 27 deadline for new appropriations legislation over writing the sequestration cuts for FY 2013 into law:
“The president has made it clear he does not want to shut down the government,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman, said Friday. “None of us do. That is another disruption that we just can’t afford right now.”
Obama -- and Senate democrats too -- are never willing to afford the disruption. And Republicans know it. The result is a ten-year vice grip on essential spending that cuts against every priority Obama has articulated throughout his presidency:
Health care and education groups, advocates for poor people, and state and local officials who fought in the past for bigger budgets are now trying to minimize the pain. 

Anne Kauffman Nolon, the president of Hudson River HealthCare, which operates 22 community health centers in New York, is urging Congress to provide money to offset the cuts. If that is not possible, she said, it would be better to delay opening new clinics so she and her colleagues did not have to cut back care for patients they already served. 

Ms. Nolon said her clinics were losing $1 million of the $10.8 million they expected from the federal government this year to care for 87,000 patients. Nationwide, the number of clinics increased sharply under President George W. Bush, and Congress provided more money for clinics to serve people expected to gain insurance under Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul

The pace of lobbying has picked up because of a widespread belief that this year’s cuts are locked in and may be a prelude to further cuts in the same programs in each of the next eight years. The Budget Control Act, signed by Mr. Obama in 2011, set annual spending limits from 2013 through 2021 and calls for across-the-board cuts to enforce those limits. 

“Under the law, federal support of research is headed steadily downhill,” said Mr. Rawlings, a former president of Cornell. “The nine-year trend is just terrible.”
Perhaps the sequestration cuts won't last ten years. Perhaps they won't last two. But perhaps they will. And if they do, I'm sorry, Obama is to blame.

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