2009 - %3, February

Gregg Voted to Abolish Commerce. Now He Will Run It

| Tue Feb. 3, 2009 11:47 AM EST

I can't say I understand Obama's appointment of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to his cabinet. The Democratic governor of New Hampshire has said he will appoint a placeholder Republican to finish Gregg's term, meaning that the balance of the Senate does not change. So in exchange for the Democrats NOT getting 60 senators, a conservative now runs the Department of Commerce. Befuddling.

And this makes it even more confusing:

President Obama's new candidate to run the Commerce Department voted in favor of abolishing the agency as a member of the Budget Committee and on the Senate floor in 1995.
Sen. Judd Gregg , R-N.H., whose nomination was expected to be announced Tuesday, also worked in the Senate to trim the department's budget as head of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee.... The Senate version of the controversial measure envisioned spending cuts of more than $960 billion, almost half of it from Medicare and Medicaid.

Can someone explain this to me? The Republican replacing Gregg is supposedly more moderate, and Obama gets to tout his bipartisan bona fides. Is that it? Is that worth putting a budget hawk in charge of a federal department?

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A Pre-Primer on an Upcoming Defense Budget Fight

| Tue Feb. 3, 2009 11:30 AM EST

You wouldn't have thought that the Obama team is taking a courageous stand by insisting on the same DOD funding as the Bush Administration, but it looks like that is exactly what is going on. Keep the following in mind when conservatives starting talking about Obama being weak on defense. CQ Politics:

The Obama administration has given the Pentagon a $527 billion limit, excluding war costs, for its fiscal 2010 defense budget, an official with the White House's Office of Management and Budget said Monday.
If enacted, that would be an 8 percent increase from the $487.7 billion allocated for fiscal 2009, and it would match what the Bush administration estimated last year for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010. But it sets up a potential conflict between the new administration and the Defense Department's entrenched bureaucracy, which has remained largely intact through the presidential transition.
Some Pentagon officials and congressional conservatives are already trying to portray the OMB number as a cut by comparing it to a $584 billion draft fiscal 2010 budget request compiled last fall by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The $527 billion figure is "what the Bush people thought was the right number last February and that's the number we're going with," said the OMB official, who declined to be identified. "The Joint Chiefs did that to lay down a marker for the incoming administration that was unrealistic. It's more of a wish list than anything else."

I love this little note: "The Pentagon refused to comment publicly on why it would need the higher amount."

Reconciliation

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 8:22 PM EST

RECONCILIATION....Elana Schor reports that Mitch McConnell is being cagey about whether Senate Republicans will filibuster the stimulus bill. Cue McConnell:

Our goal is to produce a bill that makes a difference; not to kill the measure. So the goal is entirely different from what your question seems to suggest. The goal is to make it better. And we go into this with an open mind. We have two, I think, really good ideas that are entirely in line with what the president I think wants to do.

Actually, I believe him. If Republicans really did put up a united front and filibuster the legislation, the Democratic leadership would just turn around and consider the bill under budget reconciliation rules, which require only a majority vote to pass. Sure, they've already said they'd prefer not to do that, but if they have to they will. And since the bill is all about short-term spending, it would obviously qualify under reconciliation rules.

So all the public handwringing seems like standard DC negotiating kabuki to me, not a genuine effort to kill the bill. If Republicans filibuster, the public will view them as bitter obstructionists and the bill will pass anyway. It's hard to see what's in it for them to go down this road.

POSTSCRIPT: Though if they did lose their minds and filibuster, it would be a great opportunity for Harry Reid to bring back the old filibuster rules and make 'em talk. I know that's just a leftosphere wet dream, but still. It would be great. Hell, how about if we just use this as an excuse to haul out the nuclear option and get rid of the filibuster completely? That would totally rock.

The Groundhog Who Bit Bloomberg Got It Wrong

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 6:52 PM EST

Writing on this blog, Josh Harkinson has fun at the expense of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose hand was bitten by a Staten Island groundhog:

Maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was [the groundhog's] way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

Actually, Bloomberg, who made his fortune not by swindling anyone but by providing a media service for which there was much demand, has done more to save the world than your average, TARP-sucking plutocrat. From a recent The New York Times story:

Obama's Afghanistan Problem

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 4:10 PM EST

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was scheduled to brief President Barack Obama on Afghanistan on Monday afternoon. The pair, according to some media reports, were expected to review Pentagon plans for sending more than 15,000 US troops to Afghanistan. But at Monday's daily press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said nothing so definitive was on the agenda and that the Obama administration's review of its Afghanistan policy was still under way.

Still, one question is whether Obama's basic approach to Afghanistan—which appears to involve beefing up the troops in the NATO-led force there--has a fatal flaw. Bloomberg reports:

Buy American

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 3:56 PM EST

BUY AMERICAN....Are we on the brink of a trade war? Or, if not a war, perhaps a trade squabble:

"You're going to see a lot more rhetoric out of leaders against protectionism, but what really matters is their policies," said Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and a professor of economics at MIT....The European Commission is reinstating subsidies on some dairy products to protect its farmers, targeting an area of trade law that remains highly contentious, open to interpretation and potentially damaging to developing countries. Analysts are also bracing for nations to make excessive use of the legal tools now available to them to fight unfair trade, such as filing anti-dumping cases before the WTO.

....In the United States, a move to greatly expand Buy American provisions as part of the $819 billion fiscal stimulus package has generated shock waves in other countries, with Canadian and European officials in particular rising up in protest. The provision, passed by the House on Wednesday, would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out in the stimulus package. A Senate version still being considered goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

I have to confess that when I first heard of the Buy American provisions in the trade bill, my first thought was, "Well, what do you expect?" Politically, if you're going to ask American taxpayers to pony up $800 billion to rescue the economy, then of course they're going to want this money spend on American goods and services. And given the behavior of the Republican Party so far, if this provision were removed I think it's safe to say that they'd scream blue murder at election time over every ton of Korean steel that ended up in an American bridge or sewer pipe. Their dedication to free trade, after all, has been pretty cynical over the past eight years.

But still, I guess I was a little too jaded about the whole thing. It may be a political problem, but jettisoning the Buy American language would be the right thing to do. A little bit of restraint on our part could buy us a lot of goodwill down the road and prevent a cascading series of similar measures from other countries. It's worth being a grownup on this issue.

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New York City Mayor Bitten by Groundhog

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 3:47 PM EST

groundhog.gif
Today Staten Island's famous groundhog emerged from his hole and bit New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the hand, drawing blood. How to divine the meaning? Three more months of winter, or imminent spring? My guess is that the groundhog, like the rest of us, has been more preoccupied with the long economic winter. Perhaps he didn't receive a fat bonus this year. Or maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was his way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

UPDATE: In response to David Corn's post, I'd like to clarify that I don't equate Bloomberg with the average "TARP-sucking plutocrat." He has been a good mayor overall, and is responding to the meltdown in brave ways, like calling for higher taxes. But as the founder of the Bloomberg news service, he created a corps of financial reporters who blew the biggest story on their beat. If they'd all been more like the rebellious groundhog and done some digging, or some Wall Street hand-biting (would Bloomberg have let them?), we might not be in this mess.

Image used with a Creative Commons license from israellycool.com

Quote of the Day - 02.02.09

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 2:38 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Newt Gingrich, apparently warming up to Sarah Palin:

"If Sarah Palin seeks out a group of very sophisticated policy advisers and develops a fairly sophisticated platform, she will be very formidable."

Golly, I wonder just which "very sophisticated policy advisers" Newt has in mind?

Another Commission?

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 2:33 PM EST

ANOTHER COMMISSION?....Lori Montgomery reports on a proposal for putting our country's financial house in order after the stimulus bill is passed:

At the moment, discussions are focused on whether to name a special panel to make the difficult decisions that would be required to right the nation's finances....The task force would wrestle with the details of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and the tax code, and deliver a reform plan to Congress for a vote later this year.

Under the proposal, the task force's recommendations could not be amended; the House and Senate would be required to accept or reject them without changes or additions, similar to the process lawmakers use to close military bases.

...."Some people have said we don't need a commission. But you know and I know it's never going to happen" without one, said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), a longtime champion of overhauling the budget who is still smarting from Bush's failure to push comprehensive tax reform.

Obama supports the idea (though apparently Nancy Pelosi doesn't), and blue ribbon commissions are a long-time staple of Washington politics. So sure, something like this will probably happen. But does anyone really think that Congress will agree to a straight up-or-down vote on the recommendations with no chance to amend them? Never say never, but that sounds pretty unlikely to me.

The Real Problem With Tom Daschle

| Mon Feb. 2, 2009 2:24 PM EST

President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Sen. Tom Daschle, ran into a bit of trouble over the weekend over $128,203 in tax problems. But as Glenn Greenwald notes, unpaid taxes aren't the only thing that should make you think twice about Tom Daschle. In 2002, our own Stephanie Mencimer, then an editor at the Washington Monthly, wrote about the relationship between Daschle and his lobbyist wife, Linda: